North Carolina (4-2) gets a big-time test on the road Tuesday night, as they'll face off against Illinois (6-1) in Champaign in the annual ACC-Big Ten Challenge. The Illini are ranked No. 20 in the Associated Press national poll and No. 21 in the ESPN/USA Today poll, while UNC fell out of the national polls this week.
Gametime is 9:30 pm on ESPN.
The last time UNC went to Champaign back in 2002-2003---the freshman season of standout trio Raymond Felton, Rashad McCants, and Sean May---the Tar Heels were dominated 92-65 by the Illini in what turned out to be Matt Doherty's final season at the helm.
Since that time the Tar Heels have played Illinois a couple more times, including of course the 2005 NCAA championship game in St. Louis, and then a down-to-the-wire battle later that fall in Chapel Hill featuring the UNC freshmen who would go on to bring another NCAA title to Carolina a few years later.
For UNC, fresh off a couple of decent wins over UNC-Asheville and College of Charleston, this is a great opportunity to get an early-season test from a veteran squad that is expected to make noise this season. With four seniors in its starting lineup and plenty of solid depth, this is an Illinois team that could make a serious run come March.
Tuesday's game will be the first 'true' road contest of the season for the 2010-2011 Tar Heels, who have gone 3-0 at home thus far this season and 1-2 in a trio of neutral site games in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off the week before Thanksgiving.
Carolina obviously has to play much better than they did against its last Big Ten opponent Minnesota, who slowed them down and forced it to shoot poorly in one of the team's two setbacks in Puerto Rico.
The Tar Heels are fortunate that they catch this Illinois team early, but there's no question that UNC is facing a very difficult challenge and should realistically go into this game as the underdogs.
Assembly Hall is always a tough environment---rivaling or even bettering many Atlantic Coast Conference arenas---so Carolina has its work cut out for them.
Eighth-year Illini coach Bruce Weber has the benefit of most of his team's talent from a year ago back, including senior All-America candidate Demetri McCamey.
McCamey, a 6-3, 200 pound guard who was first-team All-Big Ten a season ago, currently leads the nation with 54 assists. His 7.7 assists per game currently ranks second in the country.
He has also scored in double figures in six of Illinois's seven games so far, and leads the team in that category at a clip of 15 points per outing. He's a highly-dangerous 48.1 percent from three point range (13-of-27), making him arguably the biggest defensive key to the game from Carolina's perspective.
Another deadly outside shooter for Illinois is sophomore D.J. Richardson, who comes in shooting 52.9 percent (10-of-17) from downtown at home this season.
Richardson, last year's Big Ten Freshman of the Year, compliments McCamey well and is the beneficiary of a lot of his quality passing.
UNC's perimeter rotation of Larry Drew II, Kendall Marshall, Dexter Strickland, Leslie McDonald, Harrison Barnes, and Reggie Bullock have to collectively do a good job when they're on the court of communicating and accounting for McCamey and Richardson, who can both really light it up.
In the post Illinois has a couple more veterans in senior forward Mike Davis, who is putting up 10.4 points and 6.6 rebounds per contest, and 7-1 center Mike Tisdale, who is getting 10.1 points and 7.6 rebounds a game.
This Illinois team is as deep as it is well-rounded.
The Illini bench has outscored its opponents in all seven games so far this season by an average of just over 15 points (28.9-13.8) per game. This is an area where UNC really needs to overcome in order to have its best chance of winning.
One backup, sophomore guard Brandon Paul, has been playing so well in fact that Coach Weber made the decision to put him in the starting lineup this past Saturday in the team's win over Western Michigan.
Paul is averaging 11.4 points in just over 20 minutes per game, ranking second on the team, and he's leading the Illini in steals (16).
With Paul now in the starting lineup, all five of Illinois' starting players are averaging in double-figures, and as a team the Illini currently ranks second in the Big Ten with an average of 80.4 points per contest.
They're also excellent defensively---holding teams to combined 38.8 percent shooting and 27 percent 3-point shooting. All seven opponents have shot less than 45 percent from the field, with four teams held to less than 38 percent.
The Illini also rank second in the Big Ten in blocked shots (5.9 bpg) and third in the league in assists (18.3 apg).
So far the Illini have one victory over an ACC opponent---an 80-76 triumph over Maryland---and double-digit triumphs over the likes of UC-Irvine, Toledo, Southern Illinois, Yale, and Western Michigan.
Its only slipup came in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic in New York City November 19---a 90-84 overtime setback to Texas, another team on Carolina's upcoming schedule.
Playing teams like Illinois, Texas, and this coming Saturday's opponent Kentucky isn't exactly the way to pile up a bunch of easy wins, but frankly, there's no other way Roy Williams would have it.
These kinds of games build character in young teams---at least if they're willing to compete---and a win or very strong showing could be the kind of confidence-builder that this team desperately needs heading into ACC play in a few weeks.
UNC has the athletes to compete but they're going to be facing a more experienced opponent that can hit them in some of their weakest spots. Carolina has to show some toughness to handle this particular opponent and this atmosphere.
Stay tuned to TarHeelIllustrated.com for our onsite postgame coverage from Assembly Hall in Champaign.