Unlike last season where UNC went from December 3rd to January 14th without leaving the friendly confines of the Dean Dome, the Tar Heels will head out to Austin, Texas to face the Longhorns of Texas. This is the fourth consecutive season the Heels have squared off against Texas but the first trip to Austin. The first two years of the series were played on neutral courts and last season Texas visited Chapel Hill.
Texas has gotten off to a rough start owed mainly to the absence of sophomore point guard Myck Kabongo who is still ineligible following a questionable trip take over the summer. The NCAA has been taking its time figuring out Kabongo's case, a pain UNC is all-too-familiar with after the 2010 football season. In his absence the Longhorns have losses to Chaminade, USC, Georgetown(by 23) and UCLA. The "best" of Texas' six wins, according to KenPom, was over Texas Arlington.
UNC's resume isn't really that much better, in fact the win over 118th ranked ECU is UNC's best win. UNC does have wins over the two common opponents(Chaminade and Mississippi St) but that is about it. This will be UNC's third game against a team in the KenPom Top 100 and hopefully the first one that doesn't involve falling behind by 29 points during the game.
Despite the loss of Kabongo, Texas is going to provide UNC with a stiff challenge. First of all, it is a road game and UNC can use some experience playing away from the Dean Smith Center. Secondly, Texas is a very good defensive team ranked 4th in KenPom with a defensive efficiency of 85.1. The Longhorns lead the nation in eFG% defense at 36.1, are third in three point FG defense holding teams to 22.3% from beyond the arc and 37.6% on twos which is fifth nationally. Given how disjointed UNC's offense has been, this game serves as a huge test. Texas also has a couple interior players which will cause problems for the much lighter Tar Heels. Cameron Ridley is 6-9, 270 lbs and Jonathan Holmes who leads the team in rebounding is 6-7, 239 lbs.
UNC's answer, as always, will be tempo. The Heels cannot allow Texas a chance to set their defense and given Ridley's size, his ability to run the floor is a question mark. A much more focused and intense defensive game would also be in order since Texas is 321st in TO% giving up 25% of their possessions every game. Dexter Strickland has emerged in the last three games as a viable option at point guard and while Marcus Paige will see his minutes, a lineup that includes more Leslie McDonald and/or P.J. Hairston on the floor with Strickland, Reggie Bullock and James Michael McAdoo has to be considered.
I would not call this game a must-win nor would I place a ton of value in it should UNC win. I do think it can be a nice step in the right direction to go on the road and notch a top 100 win even if the team in question is struggling with a personnel loss. As I have noted before, the real test comes in ten days when UNLV comes to Chapel Hill but this game has some importance, even if we are talking about building confidence.
UNC 75 Texas 70