The Vols and Tar Heels haven’t played on-campus since the 1940’s. Tennessee and North Carolina met in the 2000 Sweet 16, a bitter end to an SEC Championship season as the 4-seed Vols blew a late lead to fall 74-69 to the Tar Heels. UNC also beat the Vols in Maui in 2004 and in the Preseason NIT in 2006.
Rick Barnes is no stranger to games like this, and neither is Tennessee’s program in the last ten years. But most of the guys wearing Tennessee’s uniforms haven’t played in a non-conference game like this, and since most of the guys wearing Tennessee’s uniforms are freshmen they haven’t been to Rupp Arena and haven’t played a in game like this period.
Carolina is 9-1 this year after famously winning 10 straight at the end of last season in taking the ACC Tournament and playing their way to the national championship game before getting Villanova-ed at the buzzer. They lost Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige to the NBA Draft, but it’s Carolina: they’re good.
6’8” Justin Jackson is back and scoring 16.4 points per game. He’s joined on the front line by 6’10” Kennedy Meeks and 6’9” Isaiah Hicks, both seniors. Guard Joel Berry II averages 14.8 points while shooting 41.9% from the three point line.
All that size and experience is the anti-Tennessee. Grant Williams and John Fulkerson continue to lead in minutes and production in the post, though neither tops 6’7”. Kyle Alexander does lead the team in blocked shots.
There’s no magic formula to what Carolina is doing so far, they’re just as good as you’d expect. They shoot 49.4% from the floor and hold the opposition to 37.6%, both numbers in the Top 30 nationally. They also shoot 38.9% from three and are second nationally in offensive rebounds. UNC beat Wisconsin in Maui by 15 and held off Davidson by nine in their last outing, the closest anyone has come other than Indiana. The Hoosiers had a 12-point halftime lead and held on to win at home, the only blemish on Carolina’s roster. It was an unusually chilly day for the Tar Heels, shooting just 28.6% from the arc and 59.1% from the line.
Tennessee will need some of the red-hot three point shooting that showed up against Presbyterian to give themselves a chance in this one, when they were paced by Lamonte Turner and Jordan Bowden. The Vols are still led by Robert Hubbs (13.9 points per game), but right now the next six leading scorers average between 8.9 and 10.4 points per game. It’s a bit of freshman-of-the-night right now, and may be that way all season.
The Vols were able to compete with Wisconsin and Oregon, and the Georgia Tech team they blew out just won at VCU. They’ve risen to 85th in Ken Pomeroy’s ratings and have been balanced so far with an offense rated 97th and defense 98th. Tennessee continues to be a good free throw shooting team early at 77.8%. Will they be able to get to the line against North Carolina’s bigs?
The Tar Heels are third in KenPom and fifth in offense and defense. They run an even faster pace than Tennessee. There’s little about this that suggests upset potential on paper. But it will be another tremendous learning experience for this young team.
We’ll see what they can do on Sunday evening at 5:00 PM ET on ESPN.