Opportunities for big-time non-conference wins are dwindling as the calendar closes on Christmas and league play begins. For Ohio State and North Carolina, with non-conference resumes that are uneven at best, the CBS Sports Classic in Chicago is each team’s final opportunity to put a bow on their non-conference schedule before their respective conference play begins.
Ohio State comes into this meeting with North Carolina not only looking for a highlight win for themselves, but for the Big Ten as a whole.
The less-than-stellar early season performance of the conference has seen losses of probable tournament teams to three directional schools (Eastern Michigan, Eastern Washington, North Florida), a school without a conference (NJIT) and a Division I newcomer (Incarnate Word). Not exactly the power conference we are used to seeing.
Barring disaster, the Buckeyes are tournament-bound. A win over a ranked, ACC opponent, especially after losing to the only team they’ve played in the top 50, Louisville, earlier this month, can only help the Bucks' chances of getting a top three or four seed in the Big Dance.
North Carolina has had a mediocre start to the 2014-15 campaign by Chapel Hill standards. Many pundits saw the Tar Heels as Duke’s biggest challenger in the juggernaut that is the ACC. A loss at home to Iowa after losing to then unranked Butler in the Battle 4 Atlantis, sent the Tar Heels reeling, stunned, looking for answers.
The Heels offense has yet to come together and may be lacking the perimeter attack that Roy Williams’ offense needs. Carolina may have to refocus its offensive strategy to become more inside-out, utilize their front court length, and 6-foot-9 sophomore Kennedy Meeks (13.8 points per game, 9.1 rebounds per game).
Ohio State vs. North Carolina
Site: United Center, Chicago
Time: Saturday, noon
What’s on the line for Ohio State
Ohio State can add something to its resume that's in short supply in the Big Ten, a signature win. The Buckeyes’ early schedule has been anything but noteworthy, having only played two power conference teams (Marquette, Louisville). Ohio State has the 329th toughest schedule in the country according to kenpom.com. The Buckeyes have played only one road non-conference game, losing to No. 5 Louisville 64-55 in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. A win against the Tar Heels on a neutral floor could pay dividends come Selection Sunday.
What’s on the line for North Carolina
Ten games into the season and North Carolina has yet to establish an identity. Roy Williams’ team picked up two November non-conference wins in the Battle 4 Atlantis against UCLA and Florida. While losing to Kentucky at Rupp is hardly shameful, losses to a less talented Iowa squad at home and to an undersized Butler team on a neutral court are worrisome. A win against a top 15 team would work wonders for North Carolina come March, especially after the gauntlet that is the new ACC conference schedule.
You’ll tune into watch: Freshman D’Angelo Russell’s coming out party
No other freshman in the country — heck, maybe no other player in the country — could be as productive as Ohio State’s freshman combo guard D’Angelo Russell. Through his first 10 games, the 6-5 Louisville product is averaging 18 points, 4.4 rebounds, 5.2 assists, and 1.7 steals per game, all while shooting 43 percent from behind the arc. Against Sacred Heart, Russell went off, scoring 32 points with nine rebounds and five assists while connecting on four of his eight three-point attempts. If Russell can catch fire against North Carolina’s stout defense on the national stage, D’Angelo could be a household name come January and Wooden Award candidate in March.
Pivotal player: North Carolina’s Marcus Paige
The Athlon All-American has struggled so far this season. Paige, the ACC Preseason Player of the Year, is more than four points off of last year’s scoring average of 17.5 points per game, shooting a lackluster 35.4 percent from deep and 34.8 percent from the floor as a whole. What’s bugging Marcus Paige? Hard to say. Whatever it is, the Tar Heels will need Paige to find his touch if they want to compete with the likes of the ACC’s elite this winter.
Biggest question: Who has the bigger advantage, the Buckeye’s offense or Tar Heels’ defense?
This Ohio State squad has pure scoring ability, something that Thad Matta’s teams don't normally exhibit outside of one, maybe two, players. The early season Buckeyes boast one of the country’s most efficient offenses, including three players scoring in double figures. Ohio State ranks 10th in scoring (84.2 per game), 13th in assists (17.4 per game), fourth in field goal percentage (53.7 percent) and third in effective field goal rate (60.3 percent). Granted, those offensive numbers largely come from playing lesser teams (with the exception of Louisville), and this North Carolina group is much more stout defensively than the Colgate Raiders. The Tar Heels use their athleticism on the perimeter and collective frontcourt length to keep teams at bay offensively. Thus far, North Carolina is 16th in defensive efficiency (90.0), according to kenpom.com, forcing teams to shoot just 40.4 in field goal efficiency and 25.2 percent from three. If the Tar Heels can force D’Angelo Russell to turn the ball over, like he is prone to do (3.2 turnovers per game), and get out in transition, they’ll be celebrating in Chapel Hill come Saturday night.
-By Jake Rose
David Fox: Ohio State 64-60
Braden Gall: North Carolina 74-67
Mitch Light: Ohio State 75-70
Jake Rose: Ohio State: 76-70