Tar Heels hope to shed malaise and shine as underdog this weekend

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UNC junior Reggie Bullock is a man of many talents
The noise has grown louder over the past 10 days. North Carolina, which unjustifiably held a national ranking even after horrid performances against Butler and Indiana, finally lost its goodwill after falling to woeful Texas last week.

The Heels have faced three top-100 opponents and received a spanking from each. Their NCAA Tournament resume is so thin that they’d better write a very charming cover letter to the tournament selection committee.

They host their final non-conference opponent on Saturday afternoon. No. 20 UNLV will stroll into town with an impressive 11-1 record and an opportunity to win admirers on the East Coast. The Runnin’ Rebels defeated No. 1 Carolina last year in a major surprise, but they may be this weekend’s betting favorite (lines haven’t yet been released).

ESPN’s Andy Katz summed it up: “UNLV enters Saturday's game at North Carolina as the ranked team and the squad expected to win since it is more relevant nationally this season.”

And this UNC team doesn’t have Tyler Zeller, John Henson, Harrison Barnes or Kendall Marshall. And that UNLV squad didn’t have potential All-American Anthony Bennett, a sensational freshman who could become the top overall pick in this spring’s NBA draft.

Bennett may even contend for the best dunk at the Smith Center since DeQuan Jones in 2008-09 (there’s evidently no HD version of this clip, but it’s decent if you switch the quality to 480p).

The Tar Heels stand to gain a great deal with a win. They begin ACC play the following weekend and must alter their trajectory if they hope to make the Tournament and perhaps earn a single-digit seed. They’ve hardly looked like an NCAA-worthy squad thus far, and they’ll have to compete far more vigorously to defeat UNLV, even at home.

I’ve previously examined the divergence between UNC’s jump shooters against strong versus weak competition, and Saturday will mark the latest opportunity for wings Reggie Bullock, P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald to reverse course. I’ve also questioned whether Roy Williams’ preferred offense matches his current personnel.

But freshman point guard Marcus Paige has begun to progress, handing out nine assists against zero turnovers in last weekend’s victory against McNeese State. The Heels also continue to scintillate from three-point range in their wins, compiling a stellar 13-for-28 mark versus McNeese. Optimism exists, then, that the shooters suffer from a translational issue when they square off against stout opponents, rather than simply lacking the ability.

That optimism appears to be the only plausible path forward. The Tar Heels lack a viable interior scoring game and have succeeded on offense only to the extent they’ve made perimeter shots.

Williams hasn’t backed down from his core philosophies, including an uptempo style. In fact, UNC ranks No. 2 in pace according to KenPom.com. Last season’s squad finished No. 10, while the national title clubs of 2009 and 2005 both ranked No. 8. Most major conference programs rank outside the top 100 (out of 347 Division I teams), as teams with less size tend to rely on speed and shooting rather than post play.

UNLV resides at No. 22, suggesting that Saturday’s contest will be extremely fast. If Carolina doesn’t perform better offensively and rush back in transition defense, another stomping likely will ensue.

The Heels don’t play the role of underdog often, and certainly not at the Smith Center. They’re undefeated there this season and need every advantage at their disposal to prevail. If they can, they’ll quiet critics and the growing, wild and wholly unsubstantiated rumors about locker room problems.

A little winning goes a long way, and Saturday marks an event that very well may resonate when the selection committee announces the Tournament field in March.

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