Fairfield-North Carolina Preview
North Carolina coach Roy Williams believes his team can be special once Marcus Paige returns from a broken hand.
Based on first impressions, it's plenty good even without him.
Following an authoritative season-opening win, the top-ranked Tar Heels begin their home schedule against Fairfield on Sunday afternoon.
Despite a slow start in Friday's Veterans Classic in Annapolis, Maryland, the lineup changes made necessary by Paige's injury ultimately had little effect on North Carolina's execution. The Tar Heels made full use of their superior size and enviable depth to record a 91-67 victory over a Temple team coming off a 26-win season.
North Carolina outscored the Owls 42-14 in the paint and finished with a 49-32 rebounding advantage. Junior center Kennedy Meeks had 25 points on 10-of-14 shooting and grabbed 11 rebounds, while senior forward Brice Johnson went 6 of 9 from the floor in a 16-point, 10-rebound effort.
"We felt like we had an advantage with our big guys and we wanted to get it (inside)," Williams said.
The Tar Heels figure to have no problem scoring at will in their follow-up, as Fairfield was outrebounded by a 47-24 margin in Friday's 70-57 loss to Yale. Nineteen of the Bulldogs' boards came on the offensive end.
"Yale did a good job on the boards and we did a poor job," coach Sydney Johnson told Fairfield's official website. "We need to be more aggressive going forward."
The Stags averaged only 59.5 points per game while going 7-24 last season and didn't have a player with more than eight against Yale. Forward Marcus Gilbert did average a team-leading 16.4 per game last season and guard Tyler Nelson was second in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference in 3-point percentage (.424).
Fairfield, picked to finish eighth out of 11 teams in the MAAC preseason poll, did give the Tar Heels a challenge as a heavy underdog in the schools' lone previous meeting, an 82-74 UNC win in Winston Salem, North Carolina in the 1997 NCAA Tournament first round as a No. 1 seed.
Paige, a three-year starter at point guard and the Tar Heels' top scorer in each of the past two seasons, was given a 3-to-4 week timetable after fracturing a bone in his non-shooting hand on Nov. 3. The Iowa native is optimistic of returning for a homecoming game at Northern Iowa next Saturday, though he's more likely to be out until the Dec. 1 showdown with No. 3 Maryland in Chapel Hill.
Joel Berry II made his first career start in Paige's place and tallied 14 points and four assists against Temple. Nate Britt also saw time at the point and contributed 15 points off the bench, including a pair of 3s that keyed a 13-2 run that closed out the first half and broke a 34-all tie.
"Nate really gave us a bigger spark than anybody in the game," Williams said.
Paige elected not to enter the 2015 NBA Draft in hopes of making a national championship run. Johnson and Meeks' decisions to follow suit led to North Carolina receiving a record ninth preseason No. 1 ranking in the AP Top 25 and first since 2011-12.
Fairfield lost at then-No. 4 Duke 109-59 last season and has dropped all 14 games against ranked foes since 2000.