The weekend has arrived. With it brings one of the most anticipated games of the season as the North Carolina Tar Heels roll into town. Suddenly this Sunday’s matchup is between two top 20 teams, as the Vols have entered and climbed in the polls over the last two weeks. The defending national champion Tar Heels currently hold the No. 7 spot in the AP poll.
For Tennessee, this is a chance to once again prove that they belong in the national picture. I think most have caught on by now, but a win by the Volunteers here could really open some eyes and re-ignite Knoxville’s passion for this men’s basketball program.
Winning won’t be an easy task, though. North Carolina is a well-oiled offensive machine, averaging 88 points per game (17th in the NCAA) and 19 assists per game (10th in the NCAA). Their 44 rebounds per game rank 5th in the nation currently, presenting a big challenge for the Vols on the boards.
“They had 20 offensive rebounds against us last year,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said on Wednesday. “I think they rebounded like 45-46 percent of their misses last year. That puts a lot of pressure on you finishing possessions.”
Leading that rebounding charge for the Tar Heel is junior forward Luke Maye. The 6-8, 240 pound big man is currently averaging a double-double, scoring 19 points and registering 10 rebounds per contest.
“I think Luke Maye is an unbelivable success story,” Barnes said. “He averaged a couple points freshman year, four or five last year, now he’s averaging 20 points per game. Roy (Williams) has always had good inside players.”
Senior guard Joel Berry II is the second leading scorer for North Carolina, averaging 16 points per game. The third year starter is a key cog for the Tar Heels. “Berry didn’t play against us last year. He’s a big part of their team and a reason why they made such a great run to a national championship,” Barnes said.
North Carolina will be one of the few teams that Tennessee will face this year that can match their depth. Roy Williams can go 10-11 deep, just like Rick Barnes can. Barnes will likely need every bit of that depth on Sunday as North Carolina runs one of the fastest paces in the country.
The Tar Heels rank 15th in KenPom’s pace rankings, meaning you better be ready to run against this group. Barnes of course knows this already, saying on Wednesday “(Williams’) teams play hard. They run — they consistently run as hard and as well as any team in the country. If you don’t get back they make you pay.”
Expect Tennessee’s improved defense to be tested early and often on Sunday. One key to the equation here will be keeping star forward Grant Williams out of foul trouble. We saw this team find a way to beat Georgia Tech without him down the stretch, but I’m guessing the Vols are going to need him in crunch time on Sunday. Luckily for Barnes, Kyle Alexander seems like he’s really come along defensively and will shoulder more of the load going forward.
We’ve seen Tennessee win behind big performances from Grant Williams, Lamonte Turner, Jordan Bone and Admiral Schofield, but we haven’t really seen them all click together in the same game yet. We really haven’t seen the best of James Daniel, Chris Darrington, John Fulkerson, or Jordan Bowden yet, either. The flashes have been there for each, however.
It’s going to take a special effort to beat this North Carolina team, though. One thing the Vols will definitely have going for them will be support. Already announced as a sell-out crowd, the atmosphere is going to be electric. The stands will be checkered. Big time men’s hoops is officially back in Knoxville.
I can’t wait to see how this one shakes out.
- Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
- TV: ESPN (Sherman/Bilas)
- Tip-off: 3 PM Eastern
- Radio: Vol Network
- Streaming: WatchESPN
- Reminder: It’s going to be a Checker Thompson-Boling day. Check here for your section’s color if you are attending the game.