CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- North Carolina coach Roy Williams has faced all types of Rick Barnes-coached teams: high-scoring, defense-minded, big, quick.
But he can’t quite remember ever facing one this young.
“They’re sort of like us,” Williams said of the Longhorns, who No. 23 UNC (8-2) will play in Austin on Wednesday night. “They’re just sort of finding their way through the forest, and hopefully they can find a path to get out.”
The Longhorns, at 6-4, are off to their worst start since 1998-99, and inexperience is a big reason why. All of their recruited scholarship players are freshmen and sophomores -- and they’ve been without their best playmaker, guard Myck Kabongo, as the NCAA continues to investigate his eligibility.
Most thought this game would be a rematch of the Maui Invitational last month, where Texas and UNC landed on opposite sides of the bracket and looked to be en route to a showdown in the title game. Instead, the Longhorns lost to both Division II Chaminade and USC, while the Tar Heels -- who have had some consistency problems of their own after losing four starters to the NBA draft -- fell behind by as many as 29 points in a loss to Butler.
“This year, we are better than we were at this time last year, but we still have improvements to be made," Barnes, whose team has won four of its past five matchups with the Tar Heels, told reporters Tuesday. “Transition defense will be a huge part of the game -- we did not transition well last year, causing [North Carolina] to get easy baskets. They are being more aggressive with some zone presses, running and jumping, which they have been known to do. I would imagine that they have not changed their game and will not for anyone. They are who they are against whomever they are playing.”
A few things to keep an eye on during Wednesday's 9 p.m. ET matchup on ESPN2:
The Longhorns’ defense
Without Kabongo leading the attack, Texas has struggled to score points, ranking 269th nationally in field goal percentage (40.8) while turning the ball over an average of 17.8 times per game.
But the Longhorns have tried to make up for that with stingy defense, holding foes to only 33.2 percent shooting (which ranks second nationally) and 24 percent from 3-point land (eighth nationally). That effort is led by forwards Cameron Ridley (24 blocks this season) and Jonathan Holmes (13 blocks).
“They are really good defensively," Williams said. “They do a great job of guarding the ball and they have a couple of big guys around the basket that can protect the basket."
The Tar Heels’ rebounding
After UNC’s post players failed to pull down even one offensive rebound against East Carolina on Saturday, it’s safe to say that hitting the boards was an emphasis in practice early this week -- and will be an emphasis against the Longhorns.
“It’s hard because my favorite [drill] would be to beat them to death and that kind of thing -- that you can’t come out unless you got two black eyes and a bloody nose -- but I don’t really know what that solves," Williams said. “… What we do is we work on boxing out and getting guys to get to the boards and trying to emphasize it again in practice. And we really have emphasized it the last couple of days, so it’s something that I hope we do a heck of a lot better on Wednesday night.”
The point guards
Both teams have been going through some growing pains with their freshman point guards, and this game will be another confidence test for both.
Without Kabongo, Javan Felix has started all 10 games for the Longhorns, averaging 8.7 points and 5.7 assists -- and he’s coming off a season-high 20-point performance against Texas State.
UNC’s Marcus Paige, meanwhile, is averaging 7.1 points and 3.7 assists, although he has some experienced help in the form of senior Dexter Strickland, the starting shooting guard who also plays backup point guard and has recorded 26 assists in his past three games.
Barnes said this on the role of a point guard in his system, and it sounds oh-so-similar to what Williams has said of his ball handlers in the past:
“I am harder on point guards because your point guard, like your quarterback, is the guy that is going to understand what you are trying to do within a team. There is a lot of responsibility with being a point guard. Not only does he have to know what he is doing, he has to figure out a way to make the game easier for his teammates. The best point guards make the game easier for their teammates, they set them up, they understand them, they know where they need help in the game and psychologically they are in tune with their teammates.”