On Wednesday night, the undefeated No. 6 Ohio State Buckeyes will face a true road test for the first time this season, and it will be their biggest challenge yet. Ohio State will travel to Chapel Hill, North Carolina to play the No. 7 North Carolina Tar Heels as part of the annual Big Ten-ACC Challenge. The Tar Heels, who are 6-1 with their only loss being to Michigan in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament, have fairly similar team stats to Ohio State in some areas (points per game, assists, and steals), but are brazenly different in others (points allowed and rebounds).
The Buckeyes and Tar Heels are scoring close to the same amount per game, the difference is who they rely on to get there. Ohio State is led by Kaleb Wesson (12.7 PPG, 9.3 REB), but the Buckeyes have eight players on the roster who average at least 6.9 points (very nice) per game. Of these eight, six of them score at least 8 points per contest. Ohio State also shoots 39.7% from 3-point range, which is second best in the B1G.
The Tar Heels, on the other hand, rely on one man for a huge chunk of their offense. North Carolina freshman Cole Anthony, a 6-foot-3, 190 pound point guard, averages 20.7 points per game to go along with 7.3 rebounds and 4 assists per game. Anthony has cooled off some since his 34-point debut against Notre Dame to start his college career, but even so, those numbers are downright silly. Anthony was the No. 2 overall player in his recruiting class according to ESPN, and he might be the best player in college basketball this year. Aside from Anthony, the Tar Heels have 3 other players (Armando Bacot, Justin Pierce, and Garrison Brooks) who average at least 6 rebounds per game. Their 49.7 rebounds per game is the best not just in their own conference, but in the country as well.
How the Buckeyes beat North Carolina
North Carolina is a talented team, but they have weaknesses. Despite having played games against some very small schools in their non-conference schedule, their average margin of victory is only 11.7 points. This is a comfortable win, but having played North Carolina-Wilmington, Webber State, and Elon, you’d expect it to be higher. Toppling the Tar Heels will be a tall task, but if Ohio State can do these three things, they’ll have a great chance to go into Chapel Hill and hand North Carolina their second loss of the season.
1. Limit the damage from Cole Anthony
Listen, Cole Anthony is going to get his. Ohio State has some strong defensive guards in Luther Muhammad, Duane Washington, and D.J. Carton, but Anthony presents a challenge unlike any they’ve seen in their college careers thus far. He has a very quick first step and is a strong finisher at the rim. He’s also a 35.4% 3-point shooter, so while Anthony isn’t a lights-out shooter quite yet, the Buckeyes still can’t fall asleep when he has the ball beyond the arc. At 6-foot-3 he is someone Ohio State can’t overlook on the boards, as he’s averaging right around 7 rebounds per game. The only aspect of his game that can be improved is his ball handling, as he can be turnover prone at times.
The Buckeyes aren’t going to hold Cole Anthony scoreless, that I can assure you (feel free to throw this back in my face if that happens). But if they can hold him under his average, say 10-15 points, it’ll go a long way in securing the win in Chapel Hill.
2. Win the rebounding battle
For the season, North Carolina out-rebounds Ohio State by roughly 8 rebounds per game, which is significant. North Carolina is the top rebounding team in the nation, while Ohio State is No. 33. In addition to Cole Anthony’s 7.3 rebounds per game, Armando Bacot, Justin Pierce, and Garrison Brooks all are 6-foot-7 or taller and all grab 6 boards or more per game.
The Tar Heels are one of the biggest teams in the nation, and out-rebounding them is going to take a total team effort. It will take more than Kaleb Wesson and Kyle Young each grabbing their typical 9.3 and 6.6 rebounds apiece. Those two will each need to do their part, but the Buckeyes will need everyone else to step up as well and rebound better than they’ve done to this point. For example, Duane Washington Jr. had a season-high 7 rebounds against Kent State, and it will take that type of effort against UNC to compete with them on the boards.
3. Keep Kaleb Wesson out of foul trouble
Credit to Kaleb Wesson, because prior to getting whistled for his fourth foul against Kent State with over 12:00 to go, he had not been called for more than three fouls in any game this season. Foul trouble was a nagging issue for the younger Wesson brother last season, but it looks as if he’s learning to defend better and without fouling early on in the 2019-2020 season.
Kaleb Wesson is going to be crucial for the Buckeyes come Wednesday because of North Carolina’s size advantage. Even with Wesson on the floor, Ohio State is going to need to out-muscle and out-effort UNC big time to come close to matching them in rebounds. He’ll likely be matched up with Garrison Brooks (12.9 PPG, 8.3 REB), but will also need to help guard UNC’s backup center, freshman standout Armando Bacot (11.7 PPG, 9.6 REB). If Wesson is on the bench saddled with foul trouble, the Buckeyes chances of leaving North Carolina with a victory go from unlikely to impossible.