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#5 UNC Tar Heels vs. Oklahoma State: Maui Invitational Preview

North Carolina takes on an impressive Oklahoma State squad in the semifinals of the Maui Jim Maui Invitational.

NCAA Basketball: Maui Invitational-North Carolina at Chaminade Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

UNC finally has a big-time opponent in Oklahoma State. The Tar Heels have skated by for the most part on an easy schedule to start, but the potent offense of the Cowboys should present the first legitimate challenge for the Carolina defense. If UNC can limit this attack to under 80, then the defense might be for real. If OK State continues to score like they have been, North Carolina will be on upset alert.

Oklahoma State

Oklahoma State is 4-0 on the season, thanks mostly due to an explosive offense. The Cowboys have scored 102, 102, 117 and 97, so expect a high-scoring game down in Hawaii. Interestingly, a lot of that scoring has been done by just three different players: Jawun Evans, Phil Forte III and Jeffrey Carroll.

Jawun Evans has been an early star, elevating his game as a sophomore after a solid freshman season. He’s upped his scoring average from 12.9 points to 26.3, primarily because of his hot shooting from everywhere on the court. Until last night’s 10 of 26 performance, he had been shooting over 60 percent from the field, and he’s currently well above 60 percent from deep. He’s scoring in a variety of ways, too, as Evans is getting to the foul line 10 times per game and scoring a little over a three a game.

His assist numbers are fantastic, as well: He’s averaging 6.3 assists with only 1.8 turnovers. Evans is the leader of this offense, but Forte III (21 points per game) and Carroll (18.5 points per game) are similar offensive superstars. Forte III is doing it from deep, making at least three threes in three of the first four games, while Carroll has been deadly accurate from the field at 66.7 percent. UNC has yet to face even one offensive player as talented as any of these three, so the Heels will have their work cut out for them in stopping the trio.

All that being said, North Carolina should be able to score on this team. They’ve given up 90 on two separate occasions, and that was against two teams nowhere near as gifted as Carolina. This could easily turn into a track meet; the Heels will have to assert their dominance on the boards and be more precise on offense to come away with the win.

North Carolina

The Tar Heels have looked solid throughout their 5-0 start to the season, with a mix of players stepping up in different games. Joel Berry II, Justin Jackson, Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks have all been the best players at certain points. The younger players have looked good in spots, and the team looks to have almost as much depth as last season. Still, they haven’t had a marquee game that really asserts them as a top-5 or even top-10 team.

UNC did not look great against Chaminade, coming out sluggish and careless. The duo of Meeks and Hicks saved them with their rebounding, putbacks and general overall play. Berry looked fine, certainly much better than his woeful showing against Hawaii, but many of the other Carolina players just seemed to not have it last night. Things got much better in the second half, yet it’s hard to get too excited about a win over Chaminade.

The Heels dominated the paint against the Silverswords, and a similar showing there would go a long way in defeating the Cowboys. OK State isn’t a great rebounding team, and if Meeks, Hicks and company can assert their authority there, it’ll be difficult for them to stay close for 40 minutes. Similarly, UNC gets a ton of its points in the paint, and more of the same can be progressively devastating for any team.

The Heels also need to shoot better from distance, as well as limit OK State from deep. If it weren’t for the rebounding and hustle of Meeks and Hicks, the game against Chaminade could’ve been a lot closer. Berry and Jackson are really the only two making threes, and it negatively effects the offense when the jumpers of three or four of the guys on the court aren’t respected by the defense.

Simply put, if the Heels come out against OK State like they did against Chaminade, they could get blown away before they know what hit them. This is a real wakeup game for UNC, one where they can really build something in nonconference play or begin to worry fans with a deflating early-season loss.

Oklahoma State will win if

· Evans, Forte III and Carroll continue to score in bunches

· They can force UNC into one-on-one play

· Rebound better than they have been

North Carolina will win if

· Force turnovers and get easy buckets on the other end

· Dominate the paint

· Limit outside shooting