Outside of the states of Kentucky and Arizona and the city of Durham, every college basketball coach and fan base is searching for one important question about their team…
Who are we?
A lot of teams know the answer to that question and want to ignore the hard truth that they just aren’t that good. Despite the hope of early October, they need to come to grips things are just not going to be as fruitful as the bag of beans the sports information department sold them.
And then there are the No. 12 ranked Ohio State Buckeyes and the No. 24 ranked North Carolina Tar Heels.
At 9-1, Ohio State lost decisively to the only team worth anything on their schedule (Louisville Cardinals). While UNC (7-3) can’t figure out if their the team that can roll over a ranked UCLA Bruins and Florida Gators squad or the one that was smoked by the Kentucky Wildcats, Iowa Hawkeyes and the Butler Bulldogs.
But thanks to the basketball gods (or the talking heads at Time-Warner), everyone of us gets a chance to evaluate the direction of these two programs as they square off on Saturday at 1 p.m. EST on CBS in the CBS Sports Classic at the United Center in Chicago.
And you don’t have far to go to get some early insight on what to look for in this match up either.
“The question about our effort and our toughness is something I’m concerned about. I really am,” UNC Head Coach Roy Williams said during the conference’s weekly presser. “Am I concerned about the quality of our kids? Not at all. … I’d let every one of my players be a babysitter for my grandsons. They can’t get any better than that. But we’ve got to get tougher on the basketball court, mentally probably more so than physically.”
One thing it seems that every Carolina team has lacked under Williams is intensity. Even when Tyler Hansbrough was around, there were times when the Heels just seemed they would rather be doing something else. Yes, UNC has looked amazing on defense at times and in sync moving the ball. But there are still too many times the Tar Heels get pushed around and check out for long stretches. This is a problem that has to be solved if the boys in blue expect to win this game and finish as one of the top teams in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
A big key to Carolina solving this toughness issue is the play of Center Joel James.
And Williams knows this.
James’ minutes have gone from eight minutes to ten minutes to 13 minutes to 16 minutes over the past four games. He is a mountain of a man who can be the enforcer Roy is waiting for to emerge. Whether it be a smaller team like Ohio State or a team with a solid big man like the Duke Blue Devils, James is the key to bring a lot of what Carolina is looking for.
And on the other side of this showcase are the Buckeyes, who are just as unsure as to how talented they actually are. They have definitely looked good against the less talented opponents, but they were not effective at all against the Cardinals in their only loss.
A big reason for this is the fact Thad Matta’s best players are young. Freshman combo guard D’Angelo Russell is regarded as greatest thing in the game since Jahlil Okafor. Russell is averaging 18 points a game and five assists. That’s solid for only suiting up ten games as a rookie. The kid is shooting 48% from the floor and 41% from three. But, are those numbers for real or are they the product of playing teams like the Sacred Heart Big Red?
Senior guard Shannon Scott (son of legendary Tar Heel Charles Scott who was the first African-American player to play at UNC and a story you need to read if you don’t know it) seems to think his Buckeyes are ready to prove they are ready to take the next step.
“We’re a smarter team now. We’ve been in big games before,” Scott said. “We know what we did and what we shouldn’t do in this game. And we know the things that we did that can help us out. We’ll be ready.”
It’s great to see that kind of confidence from the senior (who probably has a fun side bet with the old man that one will have to pay up on Christmas day), but there are just still too many questions that cannot be answered based on what we have seen of Ohio State to this point.
And the Winner Is
Despite the fact both teams want to show the nation they are ready for the big time, reality and common sense tells us only one team will come away victorious.
Vegas basically has the game as a pick ’em with most sports books showing UNC at -1 and a majority of folks picking Ohio State to get their “signature win” on the season. Carolina has owned the Buckeyes over the years, though, with a 10-2 recording including the last five.
So look for the game to come down to some basic numbers.
If Ohio State shoots better than 46% from the field and can control the tempo, it will be a big day for the Buckeyes. Matta’s team is one of the best shooting teams in the nation, averaging better than 45% from the floor and 41% from downtown. If they are hitting shots (and Carolina has been known to make a lot of teams look amazing at shooting the ball), the Buckeyes will be next to impossible to defeat.
If Carolina can score more than 80 points and is leading at the half, chalk up the victory for the Heels. UNC always seem to struggle when they don’t get out in transition and trail at the break. So far this trend holds true, as the Tar Heels are 7-2 when scoring 80 or more points while they are 0-2 when they are trailing at the half. You know Williams’ team is going to roll when they are out on that secondary break and forcing turnovers.
Prediction: UNC 82 – Ohio State 77
*Section Photo credit to Joe Robbins, Getty Images; Featured Photo (above) credit to Daniel Shirey, USA Today Sports.