North Carolina vs UCLA, 1:00 PM, CBS
A week after losing at Texas and wasting the opportunity to grab a valuable non-conference road win, UNC is afforded another opportunity to pad the resume versus UCLA in Brooklyn. Granted this is a neutral site game but given the NCAA Tournament is played on neutral courts, winning a game versus a team that could end up being as high as #4 seed in the NCAA Tournament would have some value.
UCLA's path this season has been interesting. The Bruins opened the season with a loss to Monmouth. At that time that loss looked terrible but given Monmouth has since beaten Notre Dame and Georgetown rising to #52 in KenPom, perhaps it wasn't so bad after all. UCLA lost to top five Kansas by 19 then followed that up with a loss barely top 100 Wake Forest. Since then the Bruins have won five straight including a win over Kentucky at home and versus Gonzaga on the road.
For UNC this is the seventh game in eight outings against a KenPom Top 100 teams and is reminiscent of last year's game versus Ohio State at this same event. UNC went into that game needing to clock a "good" win. This year's team already has that with a win over Maryland but the loss at Texas squandered some of the good will built up after that victory. UNC can restore some of that with a win today, especially if it comes missing Kennedy Meeks.
Among the games Meeks will likely miss, this is the toughest from a match-up standpoint. UCLA has big men which will make interior defense and rebounding a much tougher chore. Absent the Tar Heels' best post player in both those areas means the Tar Heels will need to lean on Joel James and also Isaiah Hicks. James was serviceable against Tulane but will have his hands full here guarding the likes of Thomas Welsh. Brice Johnson will be forced guard Tony Parker to whom he is giving up 30 pounds.
It will be imperative for Johnson to stay out of foul trouble early. If Johnson is tasked with guarding Parker, the UCLA senior is drawing 5.8 fouls per 40 minutes. As is his tendency, should Johnson get saddled with fouls early, he becomes less effective on both ends and almost checks out mentally. A quick start for him and staying away from dumb fouls keeps him in the game and keeps UNC's offense on track.
This is a big stage game with an NCAA Tournament feel, one where UNC can show it is putting things together despite taking two losses in the first ten games. Even without Meeks, UNC has the offensive weapons necessary to win this game providing the Tar Heels can mount a halfway decent defensive effort.
UNC 84 UCLA 77