North Carolina vs Michigan State. When the matchup was announced in May, it was billed as a colossal clash between two of the best teams in college basketball. The teams were both expected to be in the Top 10 in a possible national title game preview.
The Michigan State Spartans have held up to their end of the bargain, sitting atop the AP poll at #1. They’re 7-0 and looking for their first 8-0 start since the 2000-01 season. With star point guard Keith Appling and powerful forward Adreian Payne leading the way, Tom Izzo’s team looks like a championship contender.
While the Spartans have lived up to expectations, the North Carolina Tar Heels have not. Embarrassing losses to Belmont and UAB have dropped Carolina out of the AP Top 25, and they sit at 4-2. While a win over #3 Louisville was a positive victory for Roy Williams’s team, it’s the team’s losses that have people talking. The question they have is simple: what’s wrong with the Heels? What issues need to be fixed if they are going to beat Sparty tonight?
- No replacement for P.J. Hairston. Junior guard P.J. Hairston’s transgressions over the summer gave the university no choice but to suspend him indefinitely, and his scoring production (14.6 points per game) and stellar defensive play (4.3 rebounds, 1.3 steals) have been missed. While sophomore guard Marcus Paige has played well, he doesn’t possess the same skill set and skill level as Hairston, who might not play in a North Carolina jersey ever again.
- James Michael McAdoo’s struggles. Junior forward James McAdoo has struggled shooting-wise, shooting 25% from the field in the last two games. A six-point performance like the one against UAB cannot be repeated if the Tar Heels are going to win tonight, especially going up against Adreian Payne.
- Poor defense. North Carolina’s defense has been egregious this year, as they are ranked 121st in points allowed per game (first place being the lowest, last place being the most). While it is early, they are behind many ACC teams, and giving up 83 points to the Belmont Bruins isn’t going to inspire visions of nets being cut down in March. While watching the Belmont game, it was clear that the rotations were slow and sluggish, uncharacteristic of a Roy Williams-coached team.
- Too many offensive rebounds. The Heels have given up 9 offensive rebounds a game. While this isn’t the worst mark in the ACC, it’s not the mark of the elite team they hope to be. With the aggressive offense Michigan State has, it will be crucial for Carolina to box out and avoid second-chance opportunities.
The Bottom line: To beat the Spartans tonight and re-establish themselves as a Top 25 team in college basketball, North Carolina will have to play extremely smart tonight. They have to come out of the locker room as the aggressor and out-hustle Michigan State, shooting the ball well along the way. While the odds are not in their favor going into the Breslin Center (one of the toughest places to play in the country), a win is definitely possible for a team with their level of talent. It should be a very intriguing contest tonight at 9 pm in East Lansing.