Following a heartbreaking loss at Texas last Saturday, North Carolina got just what it needed with a blowout victory over Tulane on Wednesday night. Behind 25 points and 10 rebounds from senior power forward Brice Johnson, UNC used the 96-72 win over the Green Wave to rinse the bitter taste out of their mouths and get back on the right track.
There were a lot of smiles in the team lounge shortly after Wednesday’s contest, but it wasn’t long before the players turned the page and began looking ahead to the next challenge — a Saturday date with UCLA in Brooklyn, New York, for the CBS Sports Classic.
“The UCLA game is a bigger game just because it’s on a national stage and we’re playing at Barclays and all that good stuff,” Johnson said. “It’s still North Carolina against UCLA. No matter who’s watching it or what TV station is showing it, we have to be ready to play.”
When Roy Williams’ group has shown up ready to play this season, it has looked like a squad that could contend for a national title. The team played exceptional basketball in victories over Maryland, Davidson and Tulane, but setbacks at Northern Iowa and Texas revealed glaring issues with consistency.
To this point, UCLA’s 2015-16 campaign has played out similarly.
The Bruins claimed two statement wins by taking down then-No. 1 Kentucky and Gonzaga, but they also slipped up against Monmouth, Kansas and Wake Forest.
UNC and UCLA last met a year ago in the Battle 4 Atlantis, where the Heels handed Steve Alford’s team a 22-point loss. Carolina should hold the edge again going into this year’s meeting, but the matchup certainly isn’t going to be a cakewalk.
All five of the Bruins’ starters average double figures scoring. Junior guard Bryce Alford leads the way with 16.9 points per game, but the frontcourt could cause the most problems for UNC.
Power forward Tony Parker, who was recruited by the Tar Heels coming out of high school, and center Thomas Welsh are both physical big men who can score and rebound. Less than a week ago, Texas center Cameron Ridley gave North Carolina more than it could handle down low, and this weekend could be even more difficult as UNC will be without injured center Kennedy Meeks.
“Kennedy is the best passing big man we have,” Williams stated. “It hurts not having him on both ends of the floor right now, but the bottom line is we don’t have him, so we’ve got to play with who we have.”
Johnson could put his team in solid position with another productive outing like he had against Tulane. In order for that to happen, he’ll need to stay out of foul trouble and crash the boards on both ends of the court.
UCLA can also be dangerous on the perimeter. Alford, along with guard Aaron Holiday, can get hot from beyond the arc, and that has hurt UNC more than once this year. In both their losses, the Tar Heels gave up at least 11 three-pointers. Marcus Paige and Justin Jackson will need to use their length on the defensive end of the floor to prevent the Bruins from doing the same.
The stakes will be high for both programs in Brooklyn, as the contest will provide an opportunity for one of the two programs to snag a key non-conference victory. For the Heels, it would be their most impressive win away from home to date and could boost the team’s confidence as ACC play approaches.
“We just got to give them our best shot because we know they’re going to give us their best shot,” Johnson said. “They already beat the number one team in the country once, and they’re going to come after us this next game.”