With all due respect to Northern Iowa, Bucknell, and Stanford, Carolina's first big test comes now. The Phil Knight Invitational, which figures to be one of the greatest in-season tournaments ever, begins today. Over the next four days, the Tar Heels will be called upon to remind the college basketball world that they are the reigning champions. The 16-team field may be divided into two brackets, but there are several teams that should pose a strong challenge to UNC.
Here are the other seven teams participating in the "Victory" Bracket:
The Heels tip off against the Pilots at 2:30 pm ET today
For an in-depth preview of UNC's Thanksgiving Day's opponent, see the full articles from THB:
Ah, yes. The Razorbacks. Last year's Round of 32 matchup gave Carolina fans more chance of a heart attack than the turkey and stuffing you're shoveling into your mouth. Arkansas had a five-point lead with 3 minutes to play and had the Heels staring into the abyss, before a furious 12-0 saved the Redemption Tour.
That win set the tone for Carolina the rest of the way, as they repeatedly gutted out close wins down the stretch. Arkansas has been fuming ever since, pointing to a late no-call against Joel Berry. Think they might want revenge?
Arkansas returns a veteran team this year, with three of their four leading scorers being seniors. They are led by senior guard Jaylen Barford, who has started his season hot, averaging 20 points, 5 boards, and 4 assists a game. Fellow senior Daryl Macon (the Hogs' best player against UNC) has been a strong backcourt contributor as well, giving them 16 points and 4 assists a night. Moises Kingsley graduated over the summer, but freshman Daniel Gafford has stepped into his spot, giving the Hogs 16 points and 5 rebounds per game.
On the whole, this is a solid Arkansas team with a veteran starting backcourt. This team went 26-10 last year, return a lot of experience, and would love another shot at the Heels. If they get past Oklahoma, a Berry-Barford and Williams-Macon matchup would be quite the show.
The Sooners had an absolutely miserable turn of fortune in 2017. Fresh off a Final Four appearance and a National Player of the Year winner, Oklahoma crashed and burned in a season to forget, finishing 11-20. On top of that, they lost veteran guard Jordan Woodard to graduation. Dark times in Norman.
Fortunately for the Sooners, all is not lost. Hometown hero Trae Young committed to OU and has taken the reins to the program. Thus far, the freshman PG has guided the settler's wagon admirably, averaging 18.5 ppg and 11.5 apg. His youth and talent is combined with the veteran savvy of Kadeem Lattin, the senior big man who has finally been called on to generate offense, as opposed to the guard-centric approach the Sooners are known for. Freshman Bradley Manek will also try to relieve some of the pressure on Lattin on the frontline; the 6'8 forward is an effective shooter from beyond the arc, and will try an open the paint up for his captain and stud freshman guard.
Oklahoma is a better team than last year. Whether they have the stuff to stay with a veteran squad like Arkansas is still unclear, but one thing is very clear: We'll learn a lot about Trae Young on Thanksgiving Day.
Kevin Ollie's team also suffered a lackluster season in 2017, going 16-17 and missing even the NIT. Transfer Rodney Purvis (of indifferent Raleigh roots) graduated, but the Huskies return a lot of experience, particularly at the guard position.
Tyler Larrier, who transferred to UConn from VCU last summer, is finally healthy: His 2017 season was cut short by injury but he's now back and playing solid basketball. The skinny 6'8 wing has provided the Huskies with the scoring they missed badly last season. Guard Jalen Adams is back for his junior year and he and Larrier figure to form one of the better perimeter combos in the American Athletic Conference. Sophomore Christian Vital and transfer Antwoine Anderson have made solid contributions as well in the Huskies' first three games.
The Huskies are a classic Kevin Ollie team: Deep and talented on the perimeter and utterly non-existent inside. That model worked out just fine in 2014 for them, but it'll face a interesting test with their first round opponent...
Remember the Ducks? Dorsey and Brooks and Bell and Ennis? These Ducks aren't them. Oregon lost the top five scorers from the squad that lost to Carolina in the National Semifinal. Even Chris Boucher, the shot blocker who was injured during the regular season, is gone.
But Dana Altman has not been idle: A wave of freshmen and transfers hit Eugene in the offseason and through the first four games the Ducks have looked...well, like the Ducks.
Payton Pritchard, the scrappy backup guard from last year is their most talented returning player (though he's only a sophomore) and he has been their primary distributor, dishing out 5.8 assists to go with 12.5 points per game. Veteran backup Roman Sorkin has contributed in expanded minutes from last year. But it's the newcomers that have the Ducks optimistic about making another run in March.
Five-star freshman Troy Brown has given Oregon a new dynamic presence on the wing. Four-star recruit Victor Bailey has the tools to be another great Oregon shooting guard. Transfers Paul White (Georgetown) and Elijah Brown (New Mexico) are also averaging double digits.
Oregon, as they have in years past, rely heavily on the three, launching 105 in their first 4 games. Thus far, it has paid off for them; they're shooting 42% from beyond the arc as a team. Whether they can sustain that against a defense-minded Kevin Ollie squad will be telling for the rest of the Ducks season.
I'll keep this one brief: We're not gonna play DePaul. DePaul went 9-23 last year and 2-16 in the Big East. They have only two players shooting over 40% from the field and one of those is their center. Their team as a whole is shooting 38% from the field and 27% from beyond the arc. They are very bad and are going to be beaten very badly.
If they win, it will be a Chaminade-over-Virginia level surprise. That's because they're playing...
#4 Michigan State (2-1)
Yeah, I'm still mad at them for that Duke loss too. But let's put it this way: The Spartans gave up 25 offensive rebounds, committed 17 turnovers against a zone, got roasted by a red-hot Grayson Allen to the tune of 37 points, and still were in the game until the final two minutes. Sparty will be just fine.
Last year's theme was that NPOY favorite Miles Bridges basically had no help and was repeatedly called on to conjure up the Spartan attack by himself. This year he has help: Joshua Langford has grown into a better scoring threat from the wing, Cassius Winston looks more comfortable running the offense (except, y'know, against Duke's zone), and Nick Ward looks leaps and bounds better in the post than he did last year. I addition, freshman Jaren Jackson Jr. has made strong contributions right away and gives MSU arguably the best frontline in the country (with Bridges, Jackson, and Ward).
Bridges has, quite simply, been himself. He's averaging 19.7 ppg and 7.0 rpg while shooting 51% from the field and 41% from three. Somehow, people think he's already lost ground in the NPOY race. That's what expectations do for you. As far as the Victory Bracket is concerned, he's still far and away the best player in the field.
And those are our contestants! An awful lot can happen in these early season tournaments (Santa Clara anyone?) but if I were to make a prediction it'd be that the Heels take care of business against Portland, narrowly win a rematch against Arkansas in a game where our young bigs surprisingly prove to be the difference, and then we face the Spartans in the final.
As far as that game goes, well, it's Izzo and Carolina...