Texas-North Carolina Preview
The 14th-ranked Tar Heels will get suspended guard Leslie McDonald back Wednesday night in Chapel Hill as they look to avenge last season's loss to Texas.
North Carolina had already earned non-conference victories over Louisville and Michigan State before Saturday's 82-77 win over then-No. 11 Kentucky.
The win over the Wildcats in Chapel Hill provided the latest example of the Tar Heels (7-2) figuring it out on a big stage - despite again not having McDonald and 2012-13 top scorer P.J. Hairston due to NCAA eligibility concerns.
"I feel like with our team this year, mentally we're there and have built up that mentality that we're going to keep fighting, go to the next play and not worry about the last play," sophomore J.P. Tokoto said.
UNC unexpectedly learned Wednesday it will get half of that duo back against the Longhorns. The NCAA cleared McDonald, whom it said received benefits from ''numerous individuals'' during this spring and summer, including the use of luxury cars, payment of parking tickets, a cellphone and lodging.
''I feel blessed to play again for Carolina,'' said McDonald, a career reserve who averaged about seven points last year but was set to contend for a starting role. ''I truly regret putting my family, UNC and my teammates and coaches through this. I apologize to everyone who cares about the University of North Carolina and will do what I can to make up for it.''
Texas (9-1), meanwhile, is eager to gain some experience with its next two games coming against Top 25 opponents. The Longhorns, who have yet to play a ranked team this season, return home to face the No. 5 Spartans on Saturday.
"I am excited to see where we are, I am excited to see us continue to grow and do what we have done up to this point," Texas coach Rick Barnes said. "When you talk about building resumes, this is where that comes in. This is a tough opponent, tough place to play, and then we come home and have a tough one."
With Hairston out for North Carolina, Marcus Paige has shouldered plenty of the scoring burden. After averaging 8.2 points as a freshman, he's scoring 19.2 per game this season. Paige had a game-high 23 against Kentucky.
"I think especially after getting the two big games earlier in the year, we had more confidence and belief we could get this one done," Paige said.
James Michael McAdoo (13.8), Brice Johnson (13.0) and Tokoto (10.0) have supported Paige on the offensive end, and Barnes sees them as a group that his Longhorns will have to run with in order to beat.
"They really get down the floor, and this year they are rebounding the ball," Barnes said. "They are really hurting teams in transition by getting out and getting a running start and driving the ball hard at teams.
"I think the key is in transition defense, you really have to rebound, and on the other end you have to be aggressive. I think we have got the right method against them and on the other end we will be willing to get into an up-tempo game."
Texas has won five straight since a Nov. 25 loss to BYU. The Longhorns held Texas State to 29.7 percent shooting and put up 52 second-half points in an 85-53 win Saturday.
Center Cameron Ridley scored a game-high 22, while freshman point guard Isaiah Taylor added 15 points and eight assists without a turnover.
A balanced offensive attack that features five players averaging in double figures could present a complicated defensive task for the Tar Heels, though they haven't exactly been cracked on that end of the court.
North Carolina allowed Belmont to shoot 45.3 percent in a home loss Nov. 17, but the Tar Heels have held opponents to 37.9 percent overall this season with lock-down nights against Louisville (38.8) and Michigan State (35.9).
"We've played together so much, and that becomes a big factor on defense," junior Desmond Hubert said. "People always talk about talking on defense, but when we need a stop, we know how to switch or make the right plays even if we're not talking because we have played together so much we know what the other guys are going to do."
Texas has won four of the last five meetings between the schools since Roy Williams took over at North Carolina, including an 85-67 home win on Dec. 19, 2012. Texas leads the all-time series 5-3.