UNC Beat: Snowballs Forming

With North Carolina’s ACC/Big Ten Challenge on the road, the annual Texas game taking place in Austin this season, and Kentucky’s parting from the schedule this season, the Tar Heels’ greatest test at home before Atlantic Coast Conference play will come Saturday against the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels. This, a week and a half after an ugly loss to Texas, also serves as North Carolina’s last contest before the gauntlet of ACC play.

Last season, the Heels took a 90-80 loss against UNLV in the Las Vegas Invitational. At the time, that appeared to be a “bad” loss, as North Carolina was the top-ranked team in the nation. However, UNLV proved its worth over the rest of the season, finishing 2011-12 as one of three Mountain West Conference schools in the top 25.

Currently, the Runnin’ Rebels are 11-1 and ranked 20th. The team North Carolina faces Saturday will not look very similar to the one they lost to last season, however. Chace Stanbeck, a third-team MWC player who scored 28 points in last year’s matchup, graduated along with center Brice Massamba. Mike Moser, who made honorable mention of last season’s AP All-American list, returned for his junior season, but has been sidelined with a dislocated right elbow suffered in a 76-75 victory against Cal. However, this has opened the door for new faces in Sin City.

The Rebels are led by freshman power forward Anthony Bennett. Bennett is drawing national buzz as a freshman of the year candidate, for good reason. The 6-8 Canadian is averaging 19.5 points and 8.5 rebounds so far in 2012-13. Another freshman, guard Katin Reinhardt, is averaging another 10.0 points per game, shooting 34% from three-point range as well as making an impressive 95.8% of his free throws.

Also among the new faces is Khem Birch. Birch, a 6-9 forward, signed with Pittsburgh as a McDonald’s All-American. However, he left the program after ten games, lamenting a lack of playing time, and took a couple of shots on his way out the door. Nonetheless, the departure of Massamba at center provided opportunity for Birch at UNLV. He was ineligible for the better part of non-conference play, taking the floor for the first time December 17 against UTEP. He was unimpressive in that game, but has improved each time he has taken the floor since. Last Saturday, against Canisius, Birch received starter’s minutes from the bench and scored 20 points while blocking six shots and collecting eight rebounds. Whatever ills he had at Pitt, the cure for them could be at UNLV.

Anthony Marshall, a senior guard from Las Vegas, will also have a key role in his hometown team’s offense. Marshall is averaging 5.3 assists per contest, but has also improved as a shooter in 2012. Last season, Marshall was a 43.8% shooter, including 25.6% from three-point range. This year, those numbers have increased considerable, especially the perimeter shooting. Currently, Marshall boasts a 51.7% rate beyond the arc. This inside-out combination with Anthony Bennett, combined with his steady approach to running the point, Marshall makes the Rebels much better when he is on the floor.

This could be a very important non-conference game for the Tar Heels. If the Tar Heels lose Saturday night, it would be a fourth loss against teams currently in Ken Pomeroy’s top 100 in as many games. While it is too early in the year to be climbing over furniture to pound the panic button if that occurs, it will not be too soon to at least scan the room for emergency exits, you know, just in case. After all, if North Carolina cannot beat Texas or Butler, can they beat Virginia or Miami? And if they can’t, will an average season in a below-average (relatively speaking) ACC be enough to merit an NCAA berth?

A win against the Runnin’ Rebels changes all of that. First, it adds a quality non-conference win to the resume. More importantly, however, it gives confidence to a young team that they can, in fact, win the big games. Most would agree that the talent exists on this North Carolina roster to be an ACC contender. However, if the team cannot pick up that signature win, it’s only reasonable to expect it to have a negative effect entering conference play.

Furthermore, the Heels will open ACC play with three of their tougher conference foes: at Virginia, hosting Miami, and at Florida State. Even in good years, teams that prefer to slow the pace of the game to a crawl like Tony Bennett’s Cavaliers have thrived against North Carolina. And Tar Heel fans need no reminders of the thrashing that occurred in the team’s last trip to Tallahassee.

It’s dangerous to put so much emphasis on a game in December. However, the snowballs of a disappointing season have started to form. There are several opportunities on the horizon for those snowballs to become avalanches, starting Saturday against UNLV.

Zach Evans is brilliantZach Evans is a 2012 graduate of the University of North Carolina and a lifelong fan of the Tar Heels and follower of the ACC. Outside of the ACC, Zach is also a fan of the Atlanta Braves, the Carolina Hurricanes, the Carolina Panthers, and bad puns. He includes nailing the Final Four in his 2009 NCAA Tournament group and batting .000 during the 2011 intramural softball season among his crowning achievements. For more commentary, follow Zach on Twitter at @ztevans.

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