North Carolina at Ohio State
North Carolina (5-0) has been tested twice in five contests, first in the season-opener and then again in the final of the Las Vegas Invitational. The Tar Heels beat a Davidson team that briefly entered the AP Top 25 by a 76-72 margin at home to kick of the 2007-2008 campaign. After three blowouts (two at home) to start the Vegas tournament, Carolina struggled until the final minutes with a gritty Brigham Young team before prevailing 73-63 to capture the title. The Heels look more than ready for what will be their first true road game of the season at Ohio State.
The Tar Heels hope to improve upon a 2006-2007 season in which they earned one of the four No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament but fell just short of reaching the Final 4 in Atlanta. A 96-84 overtime loss to Georgetown in the East Regional final put a damper on an otherwise solid season. North Carolina went just 11-5 in ACC play, but rolled over Florida State, Boston College, and N.C. State to take the ACC Tournament title. Also highlighting last year’s campaign was a sweep of arch-rival Duke. So while last season was certainly a successful one, it looks like even bigger things are in store this time around for the Chapel Hill faithful.
Carolina lost Reyshawn Terry, Wes Miller, and lottery pick Brandan Wright, but everyone else is back from an incredibly team. Ty Lawson is one of the quickest point guards in the business and while he’ll most likely miss the Ohio State game, he is backed up by veteran Bobby Frasor, a way better-than-average floor general. And of course Tyler Hansbrough is back. He was the almost-unanimous pre-season ACC Player of the Year and he has a good shot of winning the Naismith Award as the nation‘s best player. He’ll be helped down low by much-improved sophomore Deon Thompson and fellow sophomore Alex Stepheson. Then there’s Danny Green, an athletic wing-man who does dirty work n both ends of the floor and already appears to have a much better three-point shot. Marcus Ginyard is a stopper on defense and plays bigger than his size on the boards, and Wayne Ellington can shoot the ball and score as well as any player in the nation. Yes, these North Carolina Tar Heels have everything, and anything less than a National Championship would be a disappointment.
Ohio State (4-1) was sky high after three season-opening wins to start the Pre-season NIT, including a 79-64 victory over then-No. 21 Syracuse in the semi-finals at Madison Square Garden. A major reality check for the new-look Buckeyes came in the final against Texas A&M, in which they got blown out 70-47. Ohio State bounced back two days later in Columbus to the tune of a 33-point blowout at the expense of VMI. It will help that the Buckeyes have already endured tough basketball games heading into this showdown with co-No. 1 North Carolina, but the 23-point loss to A&M could be a sign of things to come.
Ohio State, thanks to now-departed Greg Oden and Mike Conley Jr., won the Big 10 in style last season and made it all the way to the National Championship game in Atlanta before falling to Florida. The Buckeyes went 15-1 in conference play (18-1 counting the tournament) and when it was all said and done they were 35-4 overall. Obviously OSU will be hard-pressed–and that’s an understatement–to duplicate last season’s success with Oden (No. 1 overall NBA pick) and Conley (No. 4 overall) gone. But things aren’t totally bleak in Columbus.
Senior guard Jamar Butler is back and incoming freshman big man Kosta Koufos already looks like the best player on the team. Koufos is averaging 18.6 points and 8.2 rebounds per game so far this season. Junior swing-man David Lighty also must step up in both the scoring and rebounding departments.
The problem in this one for Ohio State is that the Buckeyes have no foreseeable advantage over North Carolina in any area other than having the home-court edge. For them to have any chance, the must get the ball down low to Koufos early and often in hopes of getting Hansbrough in foul trouble. In addition to that the Buckeyes will just have to hope that Ellington has an off-night shooting the ball. Ohio State does not have enough athleticism on the defensive end to guard all that Carolina has too often. The Heel just have two many weapons. This would get out of hand quickly if it was a the Dean Smith Center, but perhaps the crowd can keep the Buckeyes in this game at least for a little while.
The pick: North Carolina by 16.