Coming off a messy Holiday travel schedule that forced UNC's basketball team to spend an extra day in Chapel Hill on Sunday, the Tar Heels have made their way to New York City and will take the court at famed Madison Square Garden in Manhattan Tuesday night for a 9:00 pm tipoff against Rutgers. The game will be televised on ESPN2.
The Tar Heels (8-4), coming off a decent but all-over-the-place performance in its last pre-Christmas contest at home against William and Mary, faces a 9-2 Rutgers team that has performed relatively well early on against a light schedule.
The Scarlet Knights, under first-year head coach Mike Rice, have won six straight ball games heading into the UNC game against opposition including St. Peter's, Fairleigh Dickenson, Auburn, Marist, and New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT).
Rutgers also carried a six-game winning streak into last year's game against North Carolina, which was played a year ago to the day (December 28) in Chapel Hill.
In that ballgame UNC wound up winning by fourteen points (81-67), but the Tar Heels gave up a 17-point second half lead and nearly floundered away the game when Rutgers pulled within a single basket in the final minutes.
This is the last of a five-game series between the Tar Heels and Scarlet Knights dating back to the 2006-2007 season. Three of those contests were played in the Smith Center, while another was played on Rutgers' campus to go along with Tuesday's game in the Garden.
It hasn't been the roughest of stretches competition-wise for Rutgers, but the UNC game is the first of a brutal run of games in late December and early January for the Scarlet Knights, which includes the introduction of Big East play with games against Villanova, Marquette, UConn, and Georgetown all in the next three weeks.
Although Rutgers has nine players averaging at least 10 minutes per game, they rely mostly on a seven-man rotation that includes three seniors, two sophomores, and two freshmen.
The five starters for the Scarlet Knights haven't changed over the first 11 games of the season, so UNC will almost certainly see forwards Jonathan Mitchell and Gilvydas Biruta, wing Dane Miller, shooting guard James Beatty, and point guard Mike Coburn take the court first.
Mitchell, a 6-7, 225-pound fifth-year senior, has been Rutgers' most productive scorer so far this season, averaging 12.0 points per outing. He's one of three players averaging double-figures in scoring for the Scarlet Knights along with Coburn (10.9 ppg) and Miller (10.5 ppg).
Mitchell is also second for Rutgers in rebounding, averaging 6.1 a contest.
Although Mitchell is by definition a forward, he's certainly not afraid to step outside and stroke it from deep.
In fact, Mitchell is currently fifth in the Big East Conference in three-point shooting percentage, having made 16 of 35 attempts from behind the arc (45.7 percent).
Mitchell's scoring has increased in recent games, so UNC clearly has to make No. 24 in the white jersey a major defensive priority.
Coburn has been the spark plug for Rutgers in its recent winning streak, as the 6-0, 185-pound senior out of Mount Vernon (N.Y.) has been solid dishing the basketball and playing defense. He's averaging better than 33 minutes of action per game for the Scarlet Knights.
Along with his 10.9 points per game average, Coburn leads Rutgers with 41 assists, and his 41-19 assists-to-turnover ratio (2.15) ranks in the top 10 in the Big East. He's also shooting better than 40 percent from three-point land.
Coburn and Beatty are each among the Big East's top 13 players in steals---Coburn has 19 on the season, while Beatty has 22---so North Carolina is going to have to do a good job of protecting the basketball along the perimeter or they're liable to be forced into a bunch of turnovers.
Beatty, a native of Wilmington (N.C.) who won a state championship at New Hanover High School back in 2007, leads Rutgers in made three-pointers (20), and his 38.5 percent three-point shooting average ranks third on the team behind Mitchell and Coburn.
The 6-8 Biruta, a native of Lithuania, is on the cusp of being a double-digit scorer, averaging 9.3 points per game coming in. The freshman big man is tops among Rutgers' starters in shooting percentage at 53.0 percent, and his 5.3 rebounds ranks third on the roster.
Rutger's other starter Miller, a 6-7, 215-pound sophomore, is a versatile player who can shoot outside or try step inside to post up and look for rebounds.
Miller is leading Rutgers in rebounding at 6.8 rebounds per game, and he's also leading the Scarlet Knights in blocked shots (18).
UNC's players have to watch out for Miller setting them up for blocks by getting position behind them on their dribble drives or post moves.
The top players for Rutgers off the bench includes 6-5 freshman combo Mike Poole, who comes in averaging 7.8 points and 3.5 rebounds per game, and 6-8 sophomore big man Austin Johnson, who averages 5.8 points and 2.8 rebounds per game.
Another player that recently joined the Rutgers roster but may not have an impact on Tuesday night's contest is Kadeem Jack, who as recently as this summer was still very much on North Carolina's recruiting radar.
The mid-year enrollee chose Rutgers after North Carolina went forward with the transfer of Justin Knox, and just this week Jack arrived on the Rutgers campus.
Jack has only been on the Rutgers team a couple of days so he may not see much if any action against the Tar Heels, but Jack figures to be a big part of Rice's future plans with the Scarlet Knights.
One of the big keys for Rutgers in its recent winning streak and the season on a whole has been its improved defensive play under Coach Rice.
They're averaging 4.9 fewer turnovers than its opponents, and so far they've forced its opponents to shoot just 37 percent from the floor, which ranks in the top 20 in the country.
UNC has to watch itself and make sure it doesn't fall into the trap Rutgers wants to set for them of throwing the ball away needlessly and forcing bad shots.
On paper this clearly looks like a game that North Carolina should win.
Rutgers has played marginal competition at best so far this season, and they've lost games to the likes of Princeton and St. Joseph's while UNC has lost to likely NCAA Tournament-bound opponents such as Minnesota, Vanderbilt, Illinois, and Texas.
The thing that Princeton and St. Joe's did to handle this Scarlet Knights team was shoot well from the floor---combining to shoot over 50 percent from the field and averaging 77 points, 19 points more than Rutgers' season defensive average.
In all nine of its wins Rutgers opponents have scored less than 65 points, so this is an evident trend that UNC's coaches have surely noticed.
Force an up-tempo, high-scoring game against Rutgers and your chances of winning improve dramatically.
Carolina obviously wants to make this an up-and-down, fast-paced game. That clearly plays into their favor against a team used to playing slower, more half-court oriented teams that like to hoist threes.
UNC can't afford to get into a three-point shooting match with this Rutgers team. They need to use their athletic superiority and their length to create mismatches and fast break opportunities.
UNC typically plays well at Madison Square Garden---last year's meltdowns against Syracuse and Dayton aside---and there should be a reasonable level of support for the Tar Heels in New York City despite the recent blizzard in the Big Apple and treacherous traveling conditions.
Frankly, North Carolina should expect to win, but it's probably not going to just get handed to them.
Rutgers shoots well enough as a team from outside---35.2 percent from three-point range as a group---and has been playing well enough on defense of late to make this game more than interesting if they're playing well.
UNC will likely see limited if any contributions from John Henson, who continues to nurse a nagging thumb injury, but the Tar Heels should have everyone else available.
The Tar Heels need to get to the foul line and take advantage of the fact that Rutgers is allowing its opposition more free throw attempts than they're getting.
They also clearly need to improve upon the 58.2 points per game that Rutgers defense is allowing.
Of course UNC is far more talented than St. Peter's, Fairleigh Dickenson, and the other cupcakes that the Scarlet Knights have recently been feasting upon. The Tar Heels have dominated the all-time series 11-1, but they need to come out focused and take care of business by refusing to let Rutgers hang in the game and get some momentum.
By holding onto the basketball, finding good shot opportunities, and playing lockdown defense, UNC should be able to head into the New Year with some confidence and another victory.