This is one of the most interesting match-ups of the year. Both teams have top ten talent and are borderline top 25 (Texas is 22nd in the AP and 25th in the coaches poll, while North Carolina got votes in both polls) thanks to bad losses--or too many losses in the Tar Heels' case. Both of these teams were highly ranked last season but crashed and burned down the stretch. Both teams also sport very good wins: Texas beat Illinois in at the 2k Classic early in the season, and North Carolina just beat a very talented Kentucky team.
Author's note: It should be noted that Illinois is the common opponent between the two squads, and North Carolina was blown out by the Illini in the ACC - Big 10 Challenge.
Texas keys to the game:
- Man up inside. North Carolina's only marquee win came when Tyler Zeller and John Henson walked all over Kentucky (drawing plenty of fouls in the process). Zeller and Henson are very tall, but they aren't usually overly aggressive defensively. Henson especially has a very slight frame and can be pushed around in the post. There is no reason to face up and let him showcase his shot blocking ability. If you back Henson inside you're liable to either draw the double team or get an easy bucket. Keeping Tristan Thompson and Gary Johnson out of foul trouble will be crucial too.
- Force the guards to make big plays. North Carolina's biggest weakness is in the backcourt. Larry Drew II and Dexter Strickland combine for less than 13 points a game and are very shaky from three (read: neither is shooting 20%). Drew has never been comfortably with Roy Williams' breakneck pace. While he doesn't commit many turnovers, he doesn't run the offense particularly well either.
- Make free throws! Texas gets to the line plenty, but only shoots 66% from the charity stripe. To make matters worse Tristan Thompson goes to the line far more than anyone else, and he is shooting an abysmal 48% from the line. He's a rare player whose true shooting percentage (which takes into account free throw shooting) is lower than his actual, very respectable field goal percentage of 51%.
The three match-ups to keep an eye on are Jordan Hamilton vs. Harrison Barnes, Tristan Thompson vs. Henson and Zeller, and Rick Barnes vs. Roy Williams. Barnes is off to a slow start, but there is no denying his potential and abilities. I'm not sure he's destined for greatness in Roy's offense, but if he gets some confidence he can put up a double double in no time. He'll also likely be guarding Texas' primary offensive weapon in Jordan Hamilton, who will be crucial for a Longhorn win. The battle of the frontcourts will feature a real height disadvantage for the Longhorns (Thompson is the tallest player at 6'8, while North Carolina has Zeller at 7'0, Henson at 6'10 and Barnes at 6'8). It will be very interesting to see how the Longhorns handle the height disadvantage (my suggestion is to keep it physical).
With the pseudo home court advantage on their side, I like the Tar Heels in a close one.
The game is on CBS at 3:00 PM CST.