North Carolina is on the upswing just in time to play No. 23 Ohio State in the CBS Sports Classic in New York City on Saturday.
The Tar Heels (7-4), who lost the 2022 Final Four championship game to Kansas, entered this season atop the polls and stayed there through five victories until dropping four in a row.
They’ve responded with wins over Georgia Tech (75-59 score) and The Citadel (100-67).
“Does that mean that we’re exactly where we need to be?” North Carolina coach Hubert Davis said after the latest victory on Tuesday. “No. But I feel like we’re moving in the right direction. And it’s a great opportunity to play against a really, really good Ohio State team in New York City this Saturday. We’re excited about the challenge.”
Coach Chris Holtmann has cautioned his Ohio State team (7-2) not to judge the unranked Tar Heels by their record.
“With this Carolina team, it will even out. They’ll get on a run. They’ll be fine,” he said. “I certainly think they can win the ACC. What they have is a team full of really good players and a great system.
“They’ve got another team that can get to a Final Four. There’s no question.”
The Buckeyes’ young roster, with four freshmen making contributions, contrasts North Carolina’s roster. The Tar Heels have returned players who accounted for nearly 70 percent of the minutes played last season.
As such, Holtmann would have preferred having at least one more game to gain experience heading into Saturday’s matchup, rather than a layoff since a 67-66 win over Rutgers in the Big Ten opener on Dec. 8.
“We anticipated playing another Big Ten game, so there was a little bit of a gap in our schedule,” Holtmann said. “I think we’ll need that break come January, February versus right now.”
The Buckeyes played their most recent game without starting guard Isaac Likekele. The Oklahoma State graduate transfer returned home to Texas last week for a family matter. His availability against the Tar Heels is unknown as of Thursday.
“It’s hard to replicate his physicality defensively, his ability to guard five positions,” Holtmann said. ” Our defensive numbers were not great against Rutgers. In part, I think we did miss him not being there.”
In Likekele’s absence, freshman Bruce Thornton played all but 90 seconds.
“We knew how well-coached he’d been, the high level he’d played at, how much of a winner he was, but it would’ve been much for me to say a couple summers ago, ‘Bruce is going to play 38 minutes in the first game of the Big Ten season against one of the best defensive teams in the country,’ ” Holtmann said.
North Carolina is starting to find its rhythm on offense, led by top scorer Caleb Love, who is averaging 18 points per game. He had a team-high 17 points vs. The Citadel along with six assists, part of a season-best 24 assists on 32 made fields goals for the Tar Heels.
Davis liked the way his team reached their goals of layups, open looks for the 3-point shooters and passes inside to the big men.
“We were able to get all of them because of our ability to run in transition,” he said.
— Field Level Media