UNC vs. Ohio State Preview

North Carolina (7-4) vs. No. 23 Ohio State (7-2)
CBS Sports Classic
New York — Madison Square Garden
Saturday, Dec. 17 — 3 p.m
CBS (Brad Nessler, Bill Raftery, Jenny Dell)

“Obviously, it’s not a finished product, but we have improved. I mean, in the week and a half that we’ve been here, we’re playing better defense, we’re rebounding better. We had 24 assists, so we’re making an extra pass. We’re shooting better. And so, does that mean that we’re exactly where we need to be? 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, and we’re excited about the challenge.” — UNC coach Hubert Davis, after the Tar Heels delivered a 100-67 blowout of The Citadel on Tuesday night to post back-to-back wins at home.

“Everybody coming into the game, there should never be a drop off because we all have great abilities, different great abilities in the way we play the game. So like Jalen (Washington), Dontrez (Styles), Seth (Trimble), D’Marco (Dunn) when he’s healthy, Justin (McKoy), everybody that comes off the bench there should be no excuse for there to be any drop off ever.” — UNC freshman Tyler Nickel, after the Tar Heels erupted for 42 points off the bench in blasting Citadel, 26 points more than their previous season best in bench scoring.

Pregame Notes

Big Bounce Back: North Carolina’s victories over Georgia Tech and Citadel in the last two games won’t form a significant section on any team’s NCAA Tournament résumé. But still, those wins felt important from a bounce-back perspective, and certainly were needed after the Tar Heels returned home shouldering four straight losses. Now, against 23rd-ranked Ohio State in another neutral-court setting at Madison Square Garden, comes the chance to gauge if UNC has turned a corner.

The Tar Heels will arrive off a number of highs. UNC’s 33-point margin of victory over Citadel marked the largest in two seasons under Davis. UNC connected on a season-best 15 successful 3-pointers and distributed a season-best 24 assists. Caleb Love dished out six assists and didn’t have a turnover for the first time this season, to go along with his 17 points on 6-for-10 shooting from the field, including 4-for-6 from 3-point range. Nickel hit three 3s — he had made one across the season’s first 10 games — while scoring a season-best 16 points to lead the Tar Heels’ charge off the bench.

Possible NET Gains: UNC is down to two opportunities to secure potentially useful wins against major non-conference opponents, Saturday against Ohio State in New York and next week against Michigan in Charlotte. Beating the Buckeyes this weekend would provide a boost on several fronts, including the Tar Heels’ NET ranking, the value index system the NCAA Tournament selection committee uses for rating teams when the brackets are unveiled in March.

Ohio State checks in No. 28 in the NET rankings, while UNC is No. 34. Defeating Michigan would register less of an impact in the NET, at least at the moment, as the Wolverines are ranked No. 80, although that’s not to diminish a victory the Tar Heels would like to secure. UNC is 0-4 against Quadrant 1 teams in the NET — losses to Iowa State and Alabama in the Phil Knight Invitational and on the road at Indiana and Virginia Tech — and has just one win away from home, the Thanksgiving Day defeat of Portland.

UNC big man Armando Bacot and Ohio State power forward Zed Key. (Photo: Inside Carolina / Adam Cairns, Columbus Dispatch, USA Today Network)

Game-Winning Dramatics: Ohio State hasn’t played since Dec. 8, and that game ended in controversy with Tanner Holden nailing a 3-pointer as time expired to lift the Buckeyes past Rutgers 67-66 in their Big Ten opener. It was the only bucket of the night for Holden, a Wright State transfer.

After Caleb McConnell hit one of two free throws with five seconds remaining to put Rutgers ahead 66-64, Holden stepped out of bounds on the sideline as Ohio State teammate Bruce Thornton pushed his dribble toward midcourt, into a Rutgers trap. Holden had both feet clearly out of bounds and was returning inbounds as Thornton passed to him, for what became the game-winning 3-point heave. He let it fly with just tenths-of-a-second left, and the final horn sounded with the shot in the air. The officiating crew counted the basket, ruling that Holden re-established position inbounds before catching Thornton’s assist.

Eye on the Buckeyes: Ohio State hasn’t had the services of backup guard Eugene Brown III yet this season due to a concussion, and the Buckeyes were without versatile starter and team captain Isaac Likekele last week against Rutgers. The 6-foot-5 Likekele was tending to a personal matter. He has 118 starts across 122 career games in college and leads Ohio State in assists (3.1 per game), while ranking second on the team in rebounding (6.3 boards per game).

Saturday’s matchup down low between UNC standout Armando Bacot and Ohio State bruiser Zed Key figures to be worth watching. Key is coming off a career-high 22 points in the Buckeyes’ win over Rutgers. He matched his career best by grabbing 14 rebounds in that game, to produce his fourth double-double of the season. The 6-8 Key leads Ohio State in scoring and rebounding, but the 6-11 Bacot, one of college basketball’s best big men, will have the height advantage.

Ohio State is 2-1 at neutral sites (wins over Cincinnati and Texas Tech, and a loss to San Diego State) and 0-1 in away games (loss at Duke) this season.

Last meeting: Ohio State routed UNC 74-49 on Dec. 4, 2019, in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. The 25-point margin of defeat was the Tar Heels’ second-largest at the Smith Center, and they shot 27.4 percent from the field, their lowest ever in their home arena. Cole Anthony’s 15 points topped UNC that night. Bacot, then a freshman, left in the game’s first 7.5 minutes due to an ankle injury and did not return.

Series History: UNC leads the all-time series 12-3, including a pair of victories in CBS Sports Classic games in December 2014 in Chicago and December 2017 in New Orleans. The Tar Heels had enjoyed a seven-game winning streak against Ohio State, until the Buckeyes rolled in Chapel Hill in the last meeting between the teams.

UNC is 2-0 against Ohio State at Madison Square Garden. The Tar Heels beat the Buckeyes in the original building in the East Regional final of the 1946 NCAA Tournament, and six decades later in the current facility as part of the Coaches vs. Cancer semifinals in November 2009.

North Carolina is returning to Madison Square Garden for the first time since Dec. 28, 2010, when the Tar Heels beat Rutgers 78-55. The arena underwent a $1 billion renovation from 2011-13. Ohio State has won five of its last seven trips to Madison Square Garden. The most recent game there for the Buckeyes was a 69-68 loss to Penn State in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals.

Projected UNC Starters:
1 Leaky Black (Gr., 6-9, 205) — 6.3 ppg, 5.6 rpg
2 Caleb Love (Jr., 6-4, 200) — 18 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 3.5 apg
4 RJ Davis (Jr., 6-0, 175) — 15.2 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 2.8 apg
5 Armando Bacot (Sr., 6-11, 235) — 16.4 ppg, 11.3 rpg
32 Pete Nance (Gr., 6-11, 230) — 13 ppg, 6.4 rpg

Projected Ohio State Starters:
2 Bruce Thornton (Fr., 6-2, 215) — 9.9 ppg, 2.4 rpg, 2.7 apg

4 Sean McNeil (Gr., 6-4, 205) — 10 ppg, 1.9 rpg
10 Brice Sensabaugh (Fr., 6-6, 235) — 14.1 ppg, 3.2 rpg
14 Justice Sueing (Sr., 6-6, 210) — 12.7 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 2 apg
23 Zed Key (Jr., 6-8, 255) — 14.3 ppg, 8.7 rpg

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