UNC started the season as the No. 1 team in the country but got off to a slow start when Marcus Paige went down with a wrist injury and were upset by Northern Iowa. Now that Paige is back in the fold, they look like a team that can more than live up to their pre-season billing. They don't have any one-and-done freshman who will go high in the draft but they have just about everything you would want in a college basketball team - a star senior PG, a bunch of talented big men upfront and waves of long and athletic shooters on the perimeter.
There's no getting around it. Even playing in the fearsome home environment of the Erwin Center, this is going to be a very difficult game for Texas to win. I've always been a fan of challenging yourself and playing the best when it comes to scheduling and no matter what happens this should be great experience for the team in terms of preparing them for Big 12 play and for Shaka Smart in terms of the type of program that he wants to build. UNC has McDonald's All-Americans and five-star recruits up and down their roster but they don't have any lottery picks and they play a fast and aesthetically pleasing style of basketball. This is the kind of team that Shaka should hopefully be able to build even if he's not winning recruiting battles against teams like Kentucky.
PG: Marcus Paige (6'1 175) - The straw that stirs the drink in Chapel Hill. He's their best shooter, their best scorer and their best playmaker and everything runs through him. It may end up being for the best for UNC that he had to miss the first few games of the season and other guys were forced to grow into bigger roles. The one thing with Paige is that he doesn't have great size and he's not an uber-athlete in the mold of Ty Lawson, which means he could be susceptible to aggressive pressure defense from a bigger and longer defender like Demarcus Holland.
SG - Joel Berry (6'0 195) - It's easy to forget about Berry because he's one of their smaller players and he's not an elite athlete and he doesn't have a huge role in their offense. What separates programs like UNC from everyone else is that even their role players are McDonald's All-Americans. The key with Berry is that he's taking and making a lot of 3's (37.5% on 5 attempts a game) and that's a dimension that UNC hasn't had in recent years.
SF - Justin Jackson (6'8 195) - The Texas native (sigh) has really taken a step forward in his sophomore season and he might have been the biggest beneficiary of Paige's absence. He can do a little bit of everything - rebound, score, pass, defend multiple positions and move without the ball - and there's no real match-up for him on the Texas roster. The only thing you can do is give him the jumper and hope he misses because he's only shooting 26.7% from 3.
PF - Brice Johnson (6'9 230) - A poor man's Brandan Wright. He's a freakish athlete who will cram on your head if you give him a lane to the basket. He's grown a lot as a player in four years at UNC and he's become a much better shooter (although he still doesn't have a ton of range on his shot) and post scorer. You got to put a body on him on the boards and you have to be able to run with him in transition and not many big men at the NCAA level are going to be able to do both.
C - Kennedy Meeks (6'9 265) - An old school big man who likes to score with his back to the basket and bang in the post. Cam Ridley will see a lot of himself in this match-up. Meeks is a pretty good passer so you don't want to double team him too much and this should be one of the only times this season where he has a size disadvantage.
SG - Theo Pinson (6'6 195) - I really like his game and he should be in line for a huge junior season as the primary option following Paige's graduation. He reminds me of a more under control version of Will Barton - he's very long, very athletic and very crafty with the ball in his hands. He has also taken a big step forward as a perimeter shooter and that adds a totally different dimension to UNC as a 3-and-D wing on the perimeter.
PG - Nate Britt (6'1 170) - He wasn't a very effective player before pulling a Tristan Thompson as a left-hander who started to shoot with his right hand. Unlike Thompson, it appears to have paid off for Britt, whose 48.1% from 3 this season. He's one of a number of UNC players who couldn't shoot last season who have shot really well so far and that has made them so much more dangerous.
PF - Isaiah Hicks (6'8 230) - I'm not quite sure what the strength of his game is but he's pretty athletic for a guy with his size and he gives them another body who can run the floor, compete on the glass and play above the rim.
C - Joel James (6'10 280) - James has great athleticism for a guy with his size - he reminds me of a young Kendrick Perkins physically. He has Perkins level of skill too but he could give Ridley trouble just in terms of his physicality and ability to hold ground on the block.
Keys to the Game:
1) Contain Paige: Make anyone besides Paige beat you has been the game-plan against UNC the last couple years. It's a lot harder to execute this season but it's still a good foundation if you are trying to pull the upset. Just from an NBA perspective, I'll be curious to see what Paige can do against guys like Isaiah Taylor and Demarcus Holland who have the physical tools to theoretically hold him in check. A hidden key for that is not turning the ball over and letting Paige get easy baskets in the open court.
2) Pack the paint: Pinson, Brett and Berry have decided they are three-point shooters this season but I'd still rather they beat me from the perimeter than letting Paige get to the rim or letting their front-court guys, especially Johnson and Jackson, go 1-on-1 against overmatched defenders. It's hard to see how Texas wins this game if UNC shoots well from 3 so hopefully their role players have an off night on the road.
3) Killa Cam in effect: If Ridley even wants a chance of playing at the next level, he's got to be able to dominate match-ups against guys like Meeks and James. It's size on size in the paint with two guys - Meeks and Ridley - who are used to being the biggest and baddest dude on the floor. We'll see whose really about that life on Saturday.