Big Game Alert: Buckeyes at Tarheels
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Ohio State coach Thad Matta has kept his wits about him as his heralded freshman class has started strong despite missing its centerpiece. Roy Williams, though, is at his wit’s end hoping for consistency from his highly regarded first-year class at North Carolina.
In perhaps the most anticipated game of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, the seventh-ranked Tar Heels host the third-ranked Buckeyes at the Smith Center with a wealth of first-year talent on display from both teams.
Ohio State (6-0) was picked as a NCAA title contender after Matta successfully recruited the “Thad 5” of Daequan Cook, Mike Conley, David Lighty, Mark Titus and Greg Oden, and junior college transfer Othello Hunter. But Oden – who almost certainly would have been the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft last summer had the league not instituted a moratorium on high school players entering the draft – has yet to play a minute this season as he rehabilitates from offseason surgery on his right wrist.
Despite the absence of the 7-footer, Matta has seen the other five newcomers make successful transitions to college basketball, combining to average 44.3 points, 20.8 rebounds and 9.7 assists.
“Going into the season, there were so many unknowns. We were apprehensive and quite honestly we still are a little bit,” Matta noted. “The guys have done a nice job of adapting to how we want to play offensively and defensively. I give our veterans credit for the job they have done and the new guys for keeping their eyes and ears open and trying to learn.”
Cook leads Ohio State in scoring with 17.8 points per game despite coming off the bench. He is shooting 58.1 percent from the field and 48 percent from 3-point range. Conley has averaged 9.5 points and 6.3 assists, but also has an assist-to-turnover ratio of nearly 3-to-1 and has a team-best 19 steals.
“I have been pleased with their progress,” Matta said of Cook and Conley. “As a coach, it is enjoyable to watch guys get better over time. Cook has made the effort to learn the defense and Michael is growing into the point guard position at the college level.”
Lighty is averaging 8.3 points and 3.2 rebounds. Titus, meanwhile, is the only freshman not seeing significant playing time.
Hunter is averaging 7.7 points and a team-high 7.2 rebounds despite playing just 22 minutes per game.
The arrival of Wayne Ellington, William Graves, Ty Lawson, Alex Stepheson, Deon Thompson and Brandan Wright at Chapel Hill was met with equally high expectations for Williams and the Tar Heels (4-1). Wright has been the best of the bunch so far, averaging 16.6 points and 7.4 rebounds while shooting 61.8 percent, with Ellington (12.2 points per game) and Lawson (10.6 ppg) also averaging in double figures as the three follow the lead of sophomore forward Tyler Hansbrough, who is averaging team highs of 20.6 points and 8.8 rebounds.
Williams has been exasperated at times, though, with his team’s inconsistent play. After a surprising loss to Gonzaga in the semifinals of the NIT Season Tip-Off, the veteran coach was still miffed at his team’s sloppy play following Friday’s 101-87 win over then-No. 22 Tennessee in the consolation game.
“I told them to go home and for Christmas ask for some brains,” Williams said. “One of the parents heard me say that and said, `Good. That doesn’t cost very much.”’
The Tar Heels shot 57.4 percent from the field, but also committed a season-high 26 turnovers and 23 personal fouls and allowed the Volunteers to make 15 3-pointers.
“It’s still really early and I’ve got a really young team, “Williams said. “Two freshmen, two sophomores and one senior start. It’s a work in progress and I’ve got a lot of talent to work with.”
Hansbrough bounced back from a poor outing in Friday’s consolation contest, finishing with 27 points, nine rebounds and six assists. He was held to nine points in the loss to Gonzaga, just the second time in 36 collegiate games he failed to reach double digits.
North Carolina is just 2-5 all-time in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge and lost 68-64 last season to Illinois in a rematch of the 2005 NCAA tournament title game won by the Tar Heels.
The Tar Heels have won seven of nine all-time games against the Buckeyes. This is the first game between the schools since an 81-68 North Carolina win Dec. 18, 1993.
by: Marc Young – theSpread.com – Email Us
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