Where: Greensboro Coliseum, Greensboro, NC
When: Saturday, December 18th, 4:00 PM
Records: UNC 7-3; Texas 7-2
Earlier this week, C.Michael noted via email that these two teams look fairly close on paper until you look at RPI and strength of schedule. At that point UNC looks much better which may or may not mean a darn thing. As C.Michael said, this is going to be an interesting game. Looking at Texas' record they played well earlier this season in New York beating the Illinois in OT and losing a close game to then #4 Pitt. As well as the Longhorns played in those games, they followed those up with a meager three point win over Rice and a 17 point loss at USC(former Heel Alex Stepheson had 14 points and 11 rebounds in that one for USC.) In other words, Texas is either inconsistent or getting an early jump on a classic Rick Barnes swoon. Usually this sort of thing does not rear its head for Barnes until mid-January.
Heading into this game UNC enjoyed a week off which was probably most beneficial for John Henson as he tried to get his right thumb healed up. Henson's sprained digit was so bad he could not grab rebounds or throw down alley-oops vs Long Beach St. According to Roy Williams in his Friday press conference, Henson is better though not completely healed. As long as Henson does not hit his thumb on anything, he will get by. If not, Henson might have to sit as he did during the final ten minutes of the LBSU game.
The big challenge in this game for the Heels will be handling Texas' physical play. Last season the Heels were manhandled by Texas who had the behemoth Dexter Pittman in the middle. Pittman is gone but the Longhorns still bring a strong interior presence, though not necessarily tall. Texas' big men are in the 6-6 to 6-10 range but likely the types of players to impose themselves on the opposing defense. Gary Johnson at 6-6 leads the team in rebounds with 8.0 per game. Freshman Tristan Thompson is averaging 11.3 ppg, 7.6 rpg and 2.3 bpg and will likely be left to defend Henson in a battle of prolific shot blockers. The bread and butter of the Texas offense is Jordan Hamilton coming in averaging 18.9 ppg, 6.9 rpg and 41% from three. Hamilton is one of only two Longhorns to shoot above 35% from three meaning this is not a team that relies heavily on the three. The other reliable shooter from the perimeter is freshmen Cory Joseph who also happens to be the team leader in assists at 2.9 per game. In fact, the Texas offense is obviously not dependent on assists or even having a PG facilitate offensive execution since the Horns average 14 assists vs 29 made field goals.
The potential physical nature of the game will put the Heels' defense to the test as it tries to find its footing again following the points outburst by LBSU. On the flip side it will be interesting to see how well Henson and Tyler Zeller perform offensively with imposing post players from Texas. Rebounding will be key since Texas is the seventh rank rebounding in the country and UNC has struggled at times to collect defensive boards which in turn hurts the defense. By contrast UNC is 16th in the country on the backboards. If UNC can step up their control of the boards and limit Texas' opportunities, it would give the Heels a huge boost.
A win in this game gives the Heels another quality victory and the momentum they need to finish off December for an 11-3 record as they hit the ACC schedule. The ACC is weak this season, so the Heels cannot necessarily rely on a 9-7 mark to get them in. Having wins over UK and Texas would definitely put them in a great position. Could this be the "balanced" game we have all been waiting for where UNC does its job on both ends? I sure hope so. A win like that would be a huge step forward as UNC makes every effort to put he past year behind them and make some noise in the ACC.
UNC 87 Texas 77