#25/22 Texas Longhorns (8-2) at North Carolina Tar Heels (7-3)
Greensboro Coliseum | Greensboro, NC | Tip: 3 P.M. CT | TV: CBS

Last season, the North Carolina-Texas game was one of the most anticipated of the year. It matched two top-ten teams in the first-ever basketball game at the new Cowboys Stadium, and it delivered on all counts. The two teams played an exciting, fast-paced game that ended with the high-scoring Longhorns racing away with a 103-90 victory.

Roy Williams lost a lot of talent in the offseason
(Photo credit: Gerry Broome/Associated Press)

As the season wore on, it became clear that both teams were ranked far too high in the pre-season, and that too much was made of the Texas victory. After the Longhorns started the season 17-0, they stumbled down the stretch and lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament. The Tar Heels, meanwhile, followed up their national title with an NIT berth, and ultimately a second-place finish in the tournament.

This year, the Tar Heels once again started the season ranked near the top of the polls. Coach Roy Williams questioned the wisdom of the voters during the pre-season, reminding the media of all that North Carolina had lost in the off-season. Marcus Ginyard, Ed Davis, and Deon Thompson had all left Chapel Hill, while twin brothers David and Travis Wear transferred to UCLA over the summer. In October, fifth-year senior Will Graves was dismissed from the team for failing to comply with team rules.

All told, the six departed players accounted for 65% of the team’s minutes last season, plus 67% of the scoring and 70% of the rebounding. Trying to fill that massive void is a cast of highly-touted freshmen and former role players who now must grow into bigger contributors.

Although this afternoon’s game is technically a neutral-site affair, there’s no doubt that Greensboro Coliseum is going to be bathed in powder blue. The two teams are closely matched, so even in fact that stat guru Ken Pomeroy predicts just a one-point win for Carolina, and gives the Horns a 46% chance to win.

By the numbers

As with all Roy Williams teams, the Tar Heels are very well coached. They are excellent on both sides of the ball, with their adjusted offensive and defensive efficiencies both ranked in the top 40 nationally. They post a 0.216 point differential per possession, which is huge when you multiply it by the high number of trips down the court in a Carolina game. The Heels run the 14th-fastest tempo in the country, logging nearly 73 possessions a game.

John Henson lives to block shots
(Photo credit: Michael Conroy/Associated Press)

Offensively, the biggest weakness for North Carolina has been turnovers. Last year, the Heels constantly struggled with the issue, but seem to have made some improvements over the summer. This season, they are averaging 15 per game, which isn’t nearly as bad as it sounds because of their up-tempo attack. Adjusting for the speed of their games, the Heels cough it up just once in every five possessions.

On the other side of the ball, North Carolina plays great help defense and it results in a ton of blocks. The team is swatting 5.2 shots per game, with big men Tyler Zeller and John Henson accounting for 4.2 each night.

Free throws will not be a pretty thing in this game, as North Carolina is actually shooting worse than Texas at the line. The Heels are making 63.5% of their attempts on the year, slightly lower than Texas’ paltry 66.1% mark.

The starting five

Thank to the run-and-gun style employed by Coach Williams, the Tar Heels have 10 different players who see the court for at least 11 minutes each game. Even with the deep stable of talented players to choose from, the team has used the same starters in all ten games.

Tyler Zeller scores often for Carolina
(Photo credit: Nick Laham/Getty Images)

The team is led by big man Zeller, who is having a standout season in his junior campaign. The seven-footer is averaging 15.8 points per game, including a career-high 27 points against Kentucky earlier this month. Zeller is a tough match-up for opponents, because in addition to his game-changing size, he possesses an excellent jump shot. As a result, he is very dangerous when pulling opponents to the perimeter on screens, because he can easily score on both the pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop. He also runs the floor extremely well for a big man, making him a valuable asset in the transition-fueled North Carolina offense.

The biggest buzz surrounding the team this year came from the signing of superstar Harrison Barnes. Hailing from Ames, Iowa, the freshman was named to the pre-season All-American team without having ever played a single minute of college basketball. He’s an all-around player who can score in a variety of ways, making him a matchup nightmare for opposing coaches. Barnes is physical enough to bang inside, can take his man off the dribble, and has a quality jump shot to score in the midrange.

Early in the season, Barnes was struggling in his adjustment to the college game. He was finding it difficult to get open looks, and the frustration was apparent in his demeanor and attitude. The freshman had a tough five-game run starting at the tournament in Puerto Rico, shooting just 24.5% from the field over that stretch. He finally snapped out of the funk with a big game against Kentucky, and posted a double-double last Saturday against Long Beach State.

The aforemtioned Henson has made massive strides in his sophomore campaign, averaging nearly a double-double so far this season. He’s posting 10.5 points and 9.9 rebounds per game, while providing invaluable length on the defensive end. A former Round Rock high school star, Henson can constantly be found deflecting passes or blocking shots, and often fires up the crowd with rim-rocking dunks in transition and on putbacks. He bulked up in the offseason so he could be more physical inside, but he still is a great slasher who can spread out the floor.

Dexter Strickland has also grown a lot as a sophomore, and is benefitting from being able to focus on the shooting guard role this year. He’s still turning it over a couple of times each game, but allowing him to come off the ball has opened up his offensive game. He’s upped his scoring output to more than seven per game, a solid number in a backcourt as congested as North Carolina’s.

With Strickland playing more of a two, that leaves the point guard duties to Larry Drew II. He was also a turnover machine in the early part of last season, but seemed to find his stride as the team matured and made its run through the NIT. This year, he has an assist-to-TO ratio just above 2-to-1. Quick with the ball, Drew is also a three-point threat, although he’s currently struggling from behind the arc. With just 19% of his three-point attempts going down so far this season, Drew is more than due for a breakout performance from long range.

Off the bench

Without the Wear twins, there isn’t much in the way of frontcourt reserves for the Tar Heels. Fortunately, Alabama transfer Justin Knox was able to immediately play for UNC when he enrolled in grad school, and he’s providing key minutes backing up the Carolina bigs. Knox is a high-energy guy who scraps on the boards and is a physical force inside. Despite seeing the court for just 16 minutes a game, he’s still averaging nearly seven points and five rebounds.

Reggie Bullock is a three-point threat
(Photo credit: Michael Conroy/Associated Press)

Reggie Bullock and Leslie McDonald are the top scoring guards off the bench for Carolina. At 6’6″, Bullock is the closest thing the Heels have to a second big man off the bench, but he’s not a good enough ball handler to be a consistent swingman. He and McDonald have actually been the team’s top three-point threats, with each going 13-for-30 (43.3%) on the season. McDonald is a 6’4″ guard who likes to take his man off the dribble, and is strong enough to finish through contact.

Joining them in the backcourt is Kendall Marshall, a highly-touted freshman point guard labeled by some as the best passer in his class. This year, the Heels simply need him to be a steady backup to Drew while learning the nuances of the college game.

Junior Justin Watts is the last man in the rotation for the Heels, and he plays the least minutes out of any of the reserves. He’s always been just a role player in Chapel Hill, and that’s still the case this season. While he’s not going to stuff the stat sheet, Watts is one of those guys who makes the most out of his limited playing time.

Keys to the game

We’ve mentioned that the Tar Heels are once again a bit careless with the basketball, albeit not as much as last year’s team. With Zeller wrecking shop inside, the best way to keep his point total down is to keep the ball from ever getting to him in the first place. The Longhorns need to pressure the guards and force mistakes when Carolina settles into half-court sets. The Tar Heels often telegraph their passes and try to force it with bad passing angles, so Texas should have ample opportunity to knock the ball away.

Although North Carolina has a formidable fronctourt, the Longhorns need to attack inside. The caveat to this approach, however, is that the Texas players can’t force things when the Carolina defense bunkers down. When the Tar Heels help on defense, the Longhorns need to kick it out to open shooters. Texas has been hot from three-point range recently, so this can get them open looks on the perimeter. But when Carolina is late responding to drives and good ball movement, Texas has to hope they can pick up some fouls on the thin Tar Heel frontcourt.

All of these are moot points, however, if the Longhorns don’t play better team defense than they did in their last road game. USC absolutely embarrassed the Texas D, with the stout Trojan frontcourt taking advantage of constant one-on-one mismatches. It’s no secret that the Longhorn frontcourt is weak in one-on-one situations, so they must work together to keep Zeller and Henson from piling up the points.

Finally, Texas can really help their case if they can make an early run. Larry Drew made the mistake of calling his team’s fans “spoiled” in an interview last year, an observation that made up for its lack of tact with its incredibly accuracy. As we learned when visiting Greensboro Coliseum for the NCAA tournament in March of 2009, UNC basketball fans are exactly like Longhorn fans. While the Carolina faithful can make the arena deafening when the team is on a run, they are a reactionary bunch that sits on their hands if things aren’t going well for the home team. Like Longhorn fans, they don’t generally will their team to victory when they are struggling. If Texas can keep Carolina from jumping ahead early, it will definitely dull the huge home-court advantage.