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Ohio State men’s basketball vs. North Carolina: Game preview and prediction

Ohio State hits the road for the first time this year when they travel to Chapel Hill tonight to take on the North Carolina Tar Heels in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge.

NCAA Basketball: Battle 4 Atlantis-Alabama at North Carolina Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The Big Ten-ACC Challenge wraps up on Wednesday night with a clash between two top-10 teams in Chapel Hill. Ohio State has started the season undefeated, but will be playing their first road game of the year tonight when they take on a North Carolina team who returns from the Battle 4 Atlantis with a third place finish after suffering their first loss of the season on Thursday to Michigan in the semifinals.


Preview

Before stepping into conference play this weekend, Ohio State will play their first game away from Columbus this year when they face North Carolina tonight in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge. The Buckeyes haven’t had much success against the Tar Heels in the past, dropping seven straight games to North Carolina, and 12 of 14 meetings with the Tar Heels. Ohio State and North Carolina have met twice before in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge, with the Tar Heels winning both meetings in 2006 and 2007.

Not only has Ohio State dropped the two previous meetings in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge to North Carolina, but the Buckeyes have also lost the three meetings since. The two most recent meetings came in the CBS Sports Classic. North Carolina won the 2014 meeting in Chicago 82-74, as well as the 2017 matchup in New Orleans 86-72. The last time Ohio State was able to defeat North Carolina was in the 1992 Midwest Regional Semifinals in Lexington.

As if facing North Carolina wasn’t enough of a challenge, Ohio State will also be trying to break a recent skid in The Big Ten-ACC Challenge. The Buckeyes have lost five straight in the annual event, with the latest loss coming last year in Columbus to Syracuse. Since the inception of the event, Ohio State is 6-11 against the ACC foes they have been paired up with. The last time Ohio State was victorious in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge was back in 2013, when the Buckeyes defeated Maryland 76-60.

A big reason for optimism when it comes to Ohio State ending losing streaks to the Tar Heels and in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge is the exceptional defense the Buckeyes have been playing so far this season. After beating Morgan State 90-57 on Friday night, the Buckeyes have yet to allow an opponent to reach 60 points so far this season. Ohio State has been so dominant on defense, that already twice this season the Buckeyes have allowed less than 20 points in a half.

The win over Morgan State on Friday night closed out a six-game homestand to start the season for the Buckeyes. After starting his senior season by suffering a fractured eye socket in the season-opening win over Cincinnati, Andre Wesson missed the next two games, and had been relatively quiet in the three games he had been available for prior to Friday night’s game against the Bears. Wesson made up for some lost time by not missing a shot against Morgan State, scoring a season-high 19 points in the victory. Not only did Wesson hit all four of his three-point attempts, as well as all seven of his free throw attempts, but he added a season-high seven rebounds.

While Andre got all the headlines for his performance on Friday night, Kaleb Wesson continued his steady play to open up this season, scoring 13 points and grabbing eight rebounds against Morgan State. The younger Wesson is leading Ohio State with 12.7 points per game and 9.3 rebounds per game this year. Kaleb played in the 2017 meeting with North Carolina, scoring 12 points in 21 minutes against the Tar Heels.

After Ohio State’s bench was slowed a little bit against Kent State, the Buckeye reserves saw plenty of time on Friday night against Morgan State, outscoring the bench of the Bears 46-18. Ohio State has now outscored the bench of their opponent in each of the first seven games this season, and has seen their bench score at least 40 points in three of the last four games. Andre Wesson was the leading scorer off the bench on Friday night with 19 points, while E.J. Liddell added a career-high nine points.

A major improvement for Ohio State this year has been with their guard play. Florida State transfer C.J. Walker has been a key addition to this year’s squad, and should be able to give his teammates some insight on what to expect when it comes to playing in Chapel Hill, since he played at the Dean Smith Center in 2017 as a member of the Seminoles.

After struggling with his shot from behind the arc last year, Duane Washington Jr. has been Ohio State’s most consistent deep threat so far this year. Washington only hit 30.6% of this three-pointers last year, but has been a lot better this season, hitting just over 50% of the 27 triples he has attempted. While Chapel Hill will provide a tough environment for opposing shooters to try and find their rhythm, if there is any Buckeye who could get hot from behind the arc, Washington would be the best bet.

North Carolina comes into tonight’s game just returning from the Battle 4 Atlantis, which Ohio State will be competing in next season. The Tar Heels suffered their first loss of the season on Thursday to Michigan, but was able to rebound on Friday to defeat Oregon 78-74 in the third place game.

Friday’s win over the Ducks allowed Roy Williams to pass Adolph Rupp for fifth-most wins by a Division I head coach. The win was Williams’ 877th career win, leaving him two wins shy of tying for North Carolina head coach Dean Smith for fourth all-time. Williams is now in his 32nd season as a Division I head coach, posting a career record of 877-235, and a head coaching record at North Carolina of 459-134. Since arriving back at his alma mater in 2003, Williams has led the Tar Heels to the NCAA title in 2005, 2009, and 2017.

North Carolina came into this season having to replace much of their nucleus from last year’s team. Players like Coby White, Nassir Little, and Luke Maye either declared for the NBA Draft or graduated, leaving Garrison Brooks as the only returning starter. The junior forward is averaging 12.9 points per game and 8.3 rebounds per game so far this season.

Despite losing so much talent from last year’s team, North Carolina has been able to stay in the conversation as one of the best teams in the country because of a top-10 recruiting class. The star of this year’s recruiting class is Cole Anthony, who was the MVP of the McDonald’s All-American Game, the Jordan Brand Classic, and the Nike Hoop Summit. The guard made waves in his debut for the Tar Heels, scoring 34 points in the season-opening win over Notre Dame, setting a school record for points by a freshman in his debut. Anthony is averaging 20.7 points per game, 7.3 rebounds game, and 4,0 assists per game this year.

Another top recruit who is already paying dividends for the Tar Heels is center Armando Bacot. The big man from Richmond is coming off the best game of his young North Carolina career, scoring 23 points, pulling down 12 rebounds, and swatting six shots in the win over Oregon. The performance marked the fourth double-double in seven games for Bacot. For the season, Bacot is averaging 11.7 points per game, 9.6 rebounds per game, and 1.9 blocks per game.

Cole Anthony and Armando Bacot will bring some young star power for North Carolina, but the difference in this game could be the presence of guard Brandon Robinson. The senior missed the first four games of the year after suffering a sprained ankle in an exhibition game against Winston Salem State, but Robinson was able to return to play all three games at the Battle 4 Atlantis. Robinson showed no ill effects of the injury, playing at leat 26 minutes and scoring at least nine points in all three contests. On a team filled with underclassmen, Roy Williams is going to need Robinson and the veteran leadership he provides healthy for the rest of the season.


Prediction

ESPN BPI: North Carolina 55.5%

Both teams have already been tested this year by a few games against quality opponents, but tonight’s game will be a little trickier for Ohio State, who will be venturing outside of Columbus for the first time this season. Even though the Buckeyes could take a little time finding their shooting touch on the road in a hostile environment, how well Ohio State plays defense could allow the Buckeyes to weather an early storm for North Carolina.

Depth will be the biggest difference in tonight’s game. Ohio State has 10 players averaging over 10 minutes per game this year. While some of those numbers are a little inflated due to how many blowout victories Ohio State has, Chris Holtmann does have a great mixture of players who he can put out on the court and feel comfortable playing, even in moments where the pressure is raised.

North Carolina has eight players who are averaging more than 10 minutes per game this season, but there is a bit of a dropoff after Anthony, Brooks, Bacot, and Robinson. If Ohio State is able to find a way to get any of those four either in foul trouble or harass them into poor play with strong defense, it could be the difference between a win and a loss for the Buckeyes on the road.

No matter who wins, this should be a very entertaining game, and could be a preview of a matchup we see down the line in the NCAA Tournament. Even though the Buckeyes have struggled recently not only in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge, but also against the Tar Heels, this feels like a game where Chris Holtmann shows why he is one of the best coaches in America, and his team does just enough to outlast Roy Williams and the Tar Heels.

LGHL Prediction: 71-67 Ohio State