UNC and OSU will tip-off shortly after 9 p.m. in the biggest game of the young season and televised nationally in high definition by ESPN.
“It’s going to be an intense game,” Danny Green said. “It’s going to be like the first game we ever played here. Our adrenalin is going to be pumping.”
After a third-place finish in last week’s NIT Season Tip Off at Madison Square Garden, it’s become clear this UNC squad is not simply going to be anointed one of the school’s best ever.
“I think their confidence is shook,” Roy Williams said. “It’s safe to say they’re not as cocky or confident, because we didn’t play as well as we wanted to in New York.”
No. 6/7 UNC (4-1) is getting great shots and converting 51 percent of the opportunities, and not surprising, the Tar Heels are getting more rebounds and blocking more shots than their opponents. However, they’re also turning the ball over slightly more, allowing a higher percentage of three-point shots to fall (39 percent) and making a modest 33 percent of their own.
During the three practices since the team returned home from New York, the primary defensive emphasis has been on staying in front of the ball-handler and stopping dribble penetration. Williams said that this, more than anything else, will help keep opponents from kicking the ball out to an open three-point shooter.
Carolina is not a perfect basketball team right now, and no one is expecting it to be. Yet if the Tar Heels are going to fulfill the high expectations, then they’ll need to come together quickly with two tough contests this week.
“We can get a lot better,” Tyler Hansbrough said. “We need to do the little things better like knowing all the plays. Once we get that done we’ll be fine.”
However, the Tar Heels’ veteran coach said he’s not that worried about where his team is right now despite some visible difficulties and a 1-1 record last week. He jokingly chastised the media on hand during his Tuesday press conference for being too negative.
“I think we’re going to be a good defensive team,” Williams said. “I think there is an attitude we’ve got to acquire, and I think we will.
“And other than the Tennessee game, I haven’t been that concerned about turnovers,” he said. “When we have 101 possessions in a game, we’re going to have more turnovers than a team with 60. We did have five charging fouls against us in that game, but that’s been the only one that I’ve been frustrated with as far as turnovers.”
Also yet to emerge is a true team leader. By default for being a senior starter, Reyshawn Terry has the first dibs on the role, but he’s off to a slow start playing just “one sensational half” so far this season, Williams said. “The rest have been average or below average. Everybody puts pressure on seniors, but I expect him to get a lot better.”
But Williams also said a leader doesn’t have to necessarily be a senior, citing former Heel Raymond Felton, who assumed the role during his sophomore season.
“We need guys to step up,” Williams said. “The best leaders are the ones who step up not just because the coach says, ‘You’re the leader.’ I do think underclassmen can do it, and the upperclassmen have to allow it to happen.”
In the Tar Heels’ 82-74 loss to Gonzaga, they might have presented a blueprint for future coaches to try and stop their quick-starting offense. The Zags – unranked at the time – held Carolina to just 37 percent shooting, including a miserable 22 percent from beyond the arc.
Still, Buckeyes’ coach Thad Matta said viewing the tapes of the Tar Heels’ previous games provides only minimal insight he can use.
“Quite honestly, I don’t think we’re like any of those teams,” Matta said. “I don’t want to say we didn’t get anything (from watching the tape of those games), but it’s been a little bit of a challenge to find a lot of similarities between us and them and helping us prepare.”
The last time No. 1/3 Ohio State was ranked No. 1 in either basketball poll was March 24, 1962 prior to a 71-59 loss to second-ranked Cincinnati in Louisville. The Buckeyes are 49-3 all-time while atop the rankings. Conversely, UNC has historically been notorious for knocking off No. 1 teams – the most recent occurrence was the 83-76 upset of Duke last year in Durham.
A raucous home court advantage should greet the visiting Buckeyes (6-0), who have yet to compete against a ranked team this season. So when asked if he felt like the favorite versus Carolina, Matta quickly replied, “No.”
“I think it’s going to take a great effort on our part to have a chance to win the basketball game,” he continued. “Still, this early on, I’m watching us and at times scratching my head. From my standpoint, it’s all a process of building a team from the individuals to play in our system. I know we have a long way to go in that regard. I look at this as a great opportunity to go down there and get better.”
Smith Center crowds have traditionally needed a little time to get started – see the famous “wine and cheese” remark by former FSU guard Sam Cassell, but the arrival of No. 1 should get the house rocking quickly.
“There’s not a lot we can do to simulate what it’s going to be like,” Matta said. “If there is anything to like about going to North Carolina it’s that when we leave there tomorrow night, I know we’re one step closer to being prepared to play in the Big Ten and really any environment that we go into.”
In some ways Cassell’s comment has helped opposing non-conference coaches underestimate the Dean Dome’s imposing atmosphere. Three years ago Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun admitted he was shocked at just how loud the building was as Carolina upset the No. 1-ranked Huskies, 86-83.
“I heard about the ‘wine and cheese’ crowd here at North Carolina,” Calhoun said following the game. “I don’t know where the hell they were, but they were not here today.”
So if history is a good indicator, Matta can expect the same on Wednesday night.