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December 18, 2010

Marquee Matinee

North Carolina (7-3) looks for its second win over a top 25 opponent this month on Saturday afternoon, as they take the court at the Greensboro Coliseum for a matchup with Rick Barnes' 8-2 Texas team. This is a rematch of last year's game in Dallas, in which Texas dominated Carolina in the low post on its way to a 103-90 triumph.

"We knew after the game last year that we were going to have another chance to see them down the road. I've been looking forward to it," said junior point guard Larry Drew II.

It might be a little harder for the Longhorns to dominate the paint this time around, as they've lost multiple standouts from last year's team while UNC has picked up solid play in recent weeks from post players such as Tyler Zeller and John Henson.

"I know that they're a talented team. Everybody knows that. They're a great, storied program," said Coach Barnes of UNC. "If you let guys like Zeller and Henson get deep with as long as they are, it's very hard to guard them. We've got to make sure we get our transition defense set. That's not just the post guys---it's also the guards and the point of pickup with the ball."

"We're a national program and we're going to play a national schedule. Our whole schedule is set up to try to help us be the best team we can be. We want to be the best team we can be at the end of the year," Barnes added.

For Roy Williams, who carries a similar philosophy, this is another excellent opportunity to take on a marquee opponent on national television.

UNC is on the cusp of getting itself back into the national rankings, and a win over the Longhorns would certainly go a long way towards getting them back in.

Like UNC, Texas has played a challenging non-conference schedule early on against the likes of Illinois and Pittsburgh, among others.

The Longhorns claimed an overtime victory over the Illini, while they dropped a two-point (68-66) decision to the Panthers in Madison Square Garden in the 2K Sports Classic.

Most recently the Longhorns have gotten some relatively easy victories, but they also suffered a surprising 17-point loss to Southern Cal in which the Trojans dominated Texas in the low post.

Texas is not a particularly powerful team in the paint unlike a lot of seasons---having lost players like Damion James and Dexter Pittman to the NBA.

Its tallest starting post player is 6-8 freshman Tristan Thompson, who is averaging 11.3 points and 7.6 rebounds per contest while leading the team in blocked shots as well.

Thompson is a solid player but he could have his hands full defending the taller and arguably more agile Zeller, who leads UNC with 15.8 points per game coming in.

"It's going to be real fun, especially for me being a freshman," said Thompson. "This (game against North Carolina) is going to be our second road test. It should be a fun test for us."

Texas does have two other capable inside players in 6-6 Gary Johnson and 6-7 Jordan Hamilton---the team's leading rebounder and scorer, respectively.

Johnson has paid his dues over the years as a key bench player for the Longhorns, but he's taken advantage of his chance this season to step into the starting lineup this season, making over 51 percent of his shot attempts (11 points per game).

Johnson is an athletic big man who could give a matchup concern to John Henson and the other UNC forwards guarding him.

"I'm going to try to use my shooting ability, my quickness and things like that (against UNC)," said Johnson. "As far as defensively, you just try to outplay and outwork them. We will need to play harder than they do."

Hamilton, who leads Texas with 18.9 points per outing, could be a major handful for the Tar Heels defensively.

Hamilton is every bit as much an outside threat as he is an inside threat, as his 41.1 percent three-point shooting (23-of-56) is something to respect.

"He (Hamilton) is a very athletic guy who can score," said Coach Williams. "He can score outside. He can score taking the ball to the basket. He can score off offensive rebounds. That's the biggest thing right there---he's a mid-range guy who can do everything."

The Tar Heels will likely spend considerable time looking to slow down Hamilton through defensive 'switches' and perhaps even the occasional double-team.

Texas's guard rotation is fairly solid with senior veteran Dogus Balbay (4.6 points, 2.3 rebounds per game) and freshman Cory Joseph (11 points, 2.9 rebounds per game) in the starting lineup, and sophomore J'Covan Brown (9 points, 2.1 rebounds per game) coming off the bench.

Joseph has been particularly solid of late, averaging better than 15 points and nearly four rebounds over Texas's last five outings.

He's a talented young player who's starting to come into his own, and his matchup along the perimeter with UNC's guards will go a long way in determining the outcome Saturday.

"Of course, growing up as a kid you always saw North Carolina and they're always playing on the big stage. But it is the same at Texas and Michigan State and a lot of these great programs throughout the country," Joseph said.

"They have a great team with great guards who are known across the country. It should be a great test and challenge for our team," he added.

Joseph, along with teammates Hamilton and Brown, have been Texas's most consistent and dangerous outside shooters so far this year.

Between them the trio has nailed 52 three-pointers---over five per game on average---while shooting just under 40 percent.

Texas is a quick team that doesn't have a problem running up and down the floor---and given last year's shootout along with both teams having some defensive inadequacies this season, this could turn into another high-scoring affair.

"It starts with transition defense, as it's very important in this game as it is in every game," said Coach Barnes. "You have to block out. Offensively, what we want to do is run and fight for our space."

Texas clearly brings a challenge to the Tar Heels, but this is a game that UNC should realistically feel like it has a good chance of winning.

They'll be playing in front of a partisan crowd in the Greensboro Coliseum, where the Tar Heels have had success in neutral-court games for many years in the past.

There's no better way to head into Christmas week than to get another top 25 victory on national television.

UNC has to use its post talent to maximum capability, minimize turnovers, and play sound perimeter defense.

If they do those three things, a win over the Longhorns is very doable.





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