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North Carolina’s big men, point guard impress in win over No. 3 Louisville

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From Nov. 20th thru Dec. 1st, I’ll be on the road, hitting 21 games in 11 days. To follow along and read my stories from the road, click here.

UNCASVILLE, CT — North Carolina was done. This wasn’t a top 25 team. This was a group that would have to fight and scrap just to get a chance to play in the NCAA tournament, especially now that every source for every writer seems to think that P.J. Hairston’s career as a Tar Heel may be over.

That’s what happens when you barely hang on against teams like Holy Cross or Richmond. It’s what happens when you lose to Belmont at home.

It’s also now inaccurate.

Seven days after getting dropped by the Bruins in the Dean Dome, North Carolina put together one of the most impressive performances that we’ve seen from any team this season, as they ran No. 3 Louisville off the court, 93-84, to win the Hall of Fame Tip-Off at Mohegan Sun Arena.

Seriously.

Marcus Paige led the way with a career-high 32 points, giving him 58 points on the weekend. More impressive, however, is the fact that the Heels beat the Cardinals by nine while getting next to nothing from James Michael McAdoo. He finished with nine points and three boards on 3-for-11 shooting, but those numbers vastly overestimate his impact on this game. Two of those buckets were wide-open dunks that came off of a press break. McAdoo was a non-factor.

And it didn’t matter.

So what was the difference?

North Carolina’s front court. All those young guys that everyone has called overrated and under-talented and not-good-enough-for-UNC? They dominated Louisville. There’s no two ways about it. Kennedy Meeks was sensational, finishing with 13 points, 12 boards and seven assists, single-handily shredding Louisville’s press with his ability to pass over the defense. Crazier still is that this came one night after Meeks finished with one point and three boards in five minutes against Richmond, a performance that Roy Williams was not impressed with.

“College basketball is what Kennedy Meeks did,” Williams said after the game. “Yesterday he was one of the worst players on the planet. Today he was unbelievable. I told him last night he wasn’t ready to play, he didn’t have any intensity. This is big time college basketball.”

“I don’t know what was wrong with me, honestly,” Meeks said, ” But I do know that last night, Coach told me I was playing like the worst player on the planet. That’s enough to boost me up right there.”

And what’d he say after this afternoon?

“Helluva game.”

Meeks wasn’t alone, either. Brice Johnson added 13 points, six boards and three blocks, Joel James chipped in with five points and six boards, and even Jackson Simmons played key minutes down the stretch, scoring a couple baskets and picking up the charge that fouled out Montrezl Harrell.

That’s huge for North Carolina for a couple of reasons.

First, the obvious: the Tar Heels perimeter depth has been gutted by the suspensions of Leslie McDonald and P.J. Hairston. Their depth is non-existent, forcing guys to play out of position. We’ve been over this time and again. It’s not exactly classified information.

More importantly, North Carolina’s offense relies on having quality big men, and the lack of their starting wings is only going to increase how much the Tar Heels rely on their big guys.

“It makes a huge difference. Having an inside presence is the biggest part of Coach Williams’ offense,” Paige said. “Having a couple of different guys that can be that guy for the night is huge for us. We kind of went away from our throw-it-inside mentality last year.”

No one is going to confuse Meeks or James or Johnson with the likes of Tyler Zeller, Tyler Hansbrough or Sean May, at least not yet, but no one is expecting them to be. They don’t even need those three to be all-conference players. they just need them to be productive, to be a threat to score when they get the ball on the block and to be able to hold position, whether it’s on the glass or defensively.

And they proved themselves more than capable of doing that tonight, but the bigs weren’t the only players with something to prove.

Paige was supposed to be this team’s starting point guard, but he’s been forced into playing primarily off the ball thanks to UNC lacking wings. That means that freshman Nate Britt has been forced into the role, something he has not looked ready for. In four games entering Sunday, Britt had 12 points and six assists, total. On Sunday, he had nine points and five assists, playing with an aggressiveness and a confidence that we’ve yet to see from him.

“I’m starting to figure it out, playing at this level,” Britt said. “There’s been a lot of new things to learn for me, and I just feel like at the start of the season, we just want to incorporate all the things we learn in practice. It’s been hard for me to just think about relaxing and playing. Over time, it’s starting to come to me a little more.”

The bottom-line is this: Marcus Paige isn’t always going to play this well and James Michael McAdoo isn’t always going to play this poorly. And at some point, the Heels will get Leslie McDonald back, maybe Hairston as well. In a worst-case scenario, the Heels will have a group of wings that are better than most teams across the country.

But the key to this group competing and contending in the ACC was at the point and in the paint.

At that, more than anything, is why North Carolina’s win was so important.

PREGAME SHOOTAROUND: Some conference matchups play out before football

Oregon forward Dillon Brooks, left, reacts after scoring a basket against Utah during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Salt Lake City, Thursday, Jan. 14, 2016. Oregon defeated Utah 77-59. (AP Photo/George Frey)
(AP Photo/George Frey)
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GAME OF THE NIGHT: Utah at No. 16 Oregon, 4:00 p.m.

From Rob Dauster’s Weekend Preview:

Utah suffered one of the worst losses I’ve seen in a while on Thursday night, when Brandon Taylor, for some unknown reason, decided to foul an Oregon State player firing up a half court prayer at the buzzer. The Utes, who are arguably the second-best team in the Pac-12, will look to bounce-back on Sunday against the best team in the Pac-12, No. 16 Oregon at 4:00 p.m.

FIVE THINGS TO WATCH FOR:

1. No. 12 SMU will attempt to stay atop the American standings as they travel to South Florida. While the Mustangs won the first matchup between these two teams at home by 14, they’ve dropped their last two games on the road.

2. A few more American contests are going down as East Carolina travels to UConn and Houston heads to Tulsa. The game between the Cougars and Golden Hurricane is especially interesting because both teams are sitting two games back of SMU and trying to make a move on the postseason.

3. No. 5 Iowa continues the soft part of the schedule as they face Illinois on the road. The Hawkeyes posted recent easy victories over Northwestern and Penn State and will be heavily favored again on Sunday.

4. Could be an intriguing game as No. 17 Miami travels to Georgia Tech. Although the Yellow Jackets aren’t a major contender in the ACC, they’ve been tough this season, especially at home. The Hurricanes fell victim to Georgia Tech last season while they were ranked by Marcus Georges-Hunt has to get back on track after a recent slump for that to happen.

5. There is an Atlantic 10 game that will be featured on NBCSN on Sunday: Saint Louis at St. Bonaventure (2:00 p.m.).

CLICK HERE to watch these games on NBC Sports Live Extra Sunday afternoon.

Illinois State ends No. 21 Wichita State’s 12-game win streak

Fred VanVleet
AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki
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Having won 12 straight games, No. 21 Wichita State entered the weekend one of the hottest teams in the country. And with a four-game lead atop the Missouri Valley standings, clinching the regular season title was more a matter of “when” as opposed to “if.” But none of that mattered Saturday night at Illinois State, as the Redbirds managed to hand the Shockers their first conference loss by the final score of 58-53.

In addition to the 12-game win streak, which was second to Stony Brook (15 straight wins), Wichita State also saw its 19-game win streak in Valley regular season games come to an end. Illinois State was the last Valley team to beat Wichita State, eliminating the Shockers in the Arch Madness semifinals last March, and they played with the confidence of a team that believed it could win.

And after a rough first half the Redbirds found a way to come back, erasing a 16-point second half deficit in the process.

Wichita State’s issue in the second half was the fact that they couldn’t make shots. The Shockers shot just 26.7 percent from the field and 1-for-14 from three in the second half, with Fred VanVleet going scoreless and Shaq Morris scoring just one point. And just two players, Ron Baker and Conner Frankamp, managed to make multiple field goals in the game’s final 20 minutes. Illinois State certainly deserves credit for that, as they took away the quality looks Wichita State was able to find in building its lead.

And on the other end of the floor Paris Lee took control of the game during Illinois State’s comeback, scoring 13 of his 19 points in the second half with Deontae Hawkins adding 11 second-half points. Illinois State was even worse from the field, finishing the game shooting just over 27 percent from the field. But they were able to attack the Wichita State defense and get to the foul line, outscoring the Shockers 22-9 from the charity stripe. And in a game in which neither team could get much going offensively, the ability to get points from the line proved to be the difference.

This defeat doesn’t help Wichita State, but did anything really change? Maybe the margin for error when it comes to an at-large bid gets a little smaller with the loss in the eyes of some. But when considering injuries to the likes of VanVleet and Anton Grady in non-conference play, those early season losses are understandable. Saturday was a rough night for Wichita State, but given the maturity and talent on at Gregg Marshall’s disposal the Shockers will be fine moving forward.