In what could be the biggest challenge of the season since Kentucky, the North Carolina Tar Heels come to the Breslin Center on Wednesday as part of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. The two teams will meet for the fifth time in 15 years.
North Carolina has had an interesting season, beating No. 3 Louisville but also losing to Belmont and UAB. Take a look at this box of chocolates from North Carolina:
Head Coach: Roy Williams (286-80, 11th season)
Last season: 24-10, lost in Third Round of NCAA Tournament
This season: 4-2
Key Players: Marcus Paige, James Michael McAdoo, P.J Hairston (suspended)
What an interesting season the Tar Heels have had so far. They have shown glimpses of brilliance and moments (or full games) of ineptitude. UNC came into the season ranked No. 12 in the nation, only to lose at home to a weak Belmont team, 83-80. They also dropped a road game against Alabama-Birmingham 63-59. In those two losses, North Carolina shot a combined 26-59 (44%) from the free-throw line.
In their impressive win against a highly-ranked Louisville squad, the Tar Heels shot 26-38 from the stripe. Is there a pattern here?
If the Spartans force UNC to earn their points at the line, their chances could be high.
James Michael-McAdoo and Marcus Paige are the leaders of the Tar Heels. McAdoo, a 6-9 junior, is averaging 13.8 points and six rebounds per game. Paige, a 6-1 sophomore, is averaging over 20 points per game while shooting 50% from the field. In their win over Louisville, Paige exploded for 32 points while shooting 9-12 from the field. McAdoo struggled in that game, scoring only nine points on 3-11 shooting. In UNC’s recent loss to UAB, the two combined for only 19 points on 9-29 shooting. Only two North Carolina players scored in double figures in that game. Keith Appling will have his hands full defensively with Paige, and Branden Dawson will most likely match up with McAdoo.
Last season, P.J Hairston was a big factor in the Tar Heels’ success. He led the team in scoring, but has not played a single minute this year due to suspension. According to the Associated Press, he had been cited twice during the offseason while driving a rental vehicle that had been linked to a party promoter, who was also a felon. This raised the possibility of an improper benefits violation. Hairston’s status for Wednesday’s game is still uncertain, but he would provide a huge lift for the Tar Heels if he were declared eligible.
North Carolina leads the all-time series 11-3, winning the last six games in a row. The last time these two teams met, the Tar Heels got the better of the Spartans, winning 67-55. The game was played as part of the Carrier Classic on the deck of the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier. In 2009, North Carolina also beat MSU in the National Championship game at Ford Field.
My prediction for the game: The Tar Heels stay with the Spartans most of the game. It will be a high-scoring affair, but the Spartans with the home-court advantage will get the win 84-76. The game can be seen at 9 p.m. on ESPN.
Blake Froling is a multimedia journalist for Impact Sports
Photo: David Defever