The North Carolina Tar Heels’ basketball team should be used to playing with targets on their backs by now and having their games “circled on the calendar” whenever a new schedule is released. It comes with the territory of being one of the “blue bloods” in college basketball, and especially coming off a year in which they won the National Championship. However, just because it happens often does not make it an easy task knowing that you are getting every team’s best shot night in and night out.
The Tar Heels can look back to last season’s game against the Indiana Hoosiers as a prime example of the difficulty of facing a team who has put so much on the line in wanting to defeat them. (It is why, I think, Roy Williams’ 32-3 record against N.C. State is so impressive because we all know that it is the Wolfpack’s Super Bowl game every season.) That is why this upcoming Sunday’s game against the Tennessee Volunteers has me so nervous, and is why I picked them to defeat UNC in our Tar Heel Blog weekly picks.
Much like the Hoosiers, who had lost in the previous year to the Tar Heels in the NCAA Tournament, this game has been circled by Tennessee as a revenge game from last year’s loss in Chapel Hill. To many North Carolina fans, this game was merely a blip on the radar on the road to the National Championship and was remembered as one in which UNC struggled with what appeared to be an inferior opponent and was saved by a Tony Bradley block.
However, to this year’s Volunteers team, this is a chance at redemption and an opportunity to get a big victory at home for their resurgent program. A win over the defending National Champions would go a long way in giving the 7-1 and #20 ranked Tennessee team a quality victory come tournament time, and it would give the SEC conference some bragging rights in knocking off another one of the ACC’s best (i.e. South Carolina knocking off Duke last year in the NCAA Tournament, in case anyone needed reminding of that result).
Athletic programs and the local media love these types of “circled on the calendar” games. Stories will be written about ‘The defending National Champions are coming to town’, ‘This year’s team has a chance at redeeming last year’s loss’, and ‘Coach Barnes looks to get back to his winning ways over Coach Williams and earn a top ten victory’.
The school’s marketing departments will look to pull out all the stops in hyping up the game and putting on a show (Sunday’s game is a sell-out). The Volunteers will be giving out t-shirts in hopes of creating an orange/white checkered pattern throughout the stadium. Last year, Indiana honored their 1981 National Championship team (which defeated UNC) during halftime. North Carolina brought out Michael Jordan (“Ceiling is the Roof”) and did some cool light-up app thing before the game against Duke. The Tar Heels have already faced a team, Arkansas, who was looking to get revenge for last season’s loss, and you know if that game had been played in Arkansas they would have brought out Corliss Williamson to be a honorary captain.
That is why this game means so much, and that is why it will be a challenge for this young Tar Heels team to match that intensity, emotion, and urgency (to get a victory) from Tennessee. Also, much like last year (and in previous years, as pointed out in Chad Floyd’s piece from earlier in the week), North Carolina has not always played their best coming off a long break after exams.
Obviously, it is beneficial to have a Hall of Fame coach in Roy Williams who knows how to prepare his teams and get them ready for this type of environment. It is also important to have players like Theo Pinson, Joel Berry, Kenny Williams, and Luke Maye who themselves used the theme of redemption throughout the entire 2016-2017 season. The upperclassman leadership will be important in a game like this, especially with having so many new faces on the team.
In order to get the early season road victory, the Tar Heels will need to bring or match the Volunteers’ intensity from the opening tip. One of the best ways to quiet a hyped-up crowd and to take the wind out of the sails of an emotional team is to put them away early. Looking back to last season’s game against Indiana as an example of what can go wrong if UNC comes out flat on Sunday and doesn’t match Tennessee’s energy, last season they allowed Indiana to get an early lead, kept their crowd going wild, and forced the Tar Heels to play from behind the entire game, which eventually led to them being defeated.
No matter the outcome (and I hope that I am wrong with my prediction), it will be a great learning opportunity for Coach Williams’ young team, playing a ranked non-conference opponent, early in December, in a hostile environment that will pay dividends down the road come March/April (something that a certain school from Durham doesn’t know much about, and recently learned a hard lesson on while in Boston).