The Miami Hurricanes (10-3, 1-0) are heading into the Smith Center Thursday evening, clashing with a North Carolina (10-4, 0-1) squad in desperate need of a win.
UNC is coming off a head scratching game against Virginia, as leadership and team defense was put into question during the 61-52 loss to the Cavaliers.
Head coach Roy Williams has been searching for answers as to why his team has been struggling, asking all his assistants and players.
The 'Canes haven't defeated the Tar Heels since the 2005-2006 season, as UNC has swept Miami the past few seasons. UNC leads the overall series 18-2. The Hurricanes will look to turn things around Thursday night.
MORE ON MIAMI
The Hurricanes, coached by Jim Larranaga, are coming off a gritty win at Georgia Tech, defeating the Yellow Jackets 62-49 January 5. Miami held the Jackets to 32.7 percent shooting, while only allowing two players in double digits for the game.
Miami is a very similar team to Virginia in many ways, especially statistically.
The Hurricanes rank fourth in the ACC and 18th nationally in field goal percentage defense at 37.4 percent, while also averaging 4.6 blocks and 7.3 steals per game.
"Defensively, they're holding other teams to a low percentage. Teams are shooting 37 percent against them, they're shooting 30.8 I think it is from the three-point line. So they guard you," said Williams of the Hurricanes.
"Even their free throw defense is really good," Williams joked. "People are only shooting 66 percent against them from the free throw line. I don't know how they handle that, but I'd like to find out."
The Hurricanes bench stepped up in the recent triumph over the Yellow Jackets, as junior guard Rion Brown scored 22 points as a reserve in 23 minutes of play.
"They've got Rion Brown off the bench who scored 22 points the last game on the road," said Williams.
Senior guard Durand Scott leads Miami into Chapel Hill Thursday night, as he is leading the 'Canes in scoring with 14.7 points per game.
The veteran backcourt talent is a difficult defensive matchup with his ability to drive to the basket and shoot from the perimeter.
"They're guard influenced, but they're not just completely guard-dominated," Williams said of Miami. "They're a difficult team to guard because Durand can take the ball to the basket so well, get fouled and get to the rim, and he can make some three's too."
"We tried to go under the screen down there a couple of years ago (at Miami), and he (Scott) makes three three's in the first eight minutes."
Reggie Johnson would be a huge boost for the 'Canes in this particular matchup, as he was averaging 12.6 points and 10 rebounds per game, but he has missed the last five games with a broken thumb and there could be a chance that he is out for a longer period of time.
Miami has gone 3-2 without Johnson, missing his big body down in the middle along with his offensive abilities.
"They've missed Reggie for four or five games or something like that, so they're settled in a little bit more now," Williams said. "Reggie was really helping him on the backboards more than anything. I think he was averaging 10 rebounds a game, but he was only shooting 42, 43 percent, so those other guys that were scoring the ball are just doing it a little bit more, and they have a guy that can score 22 off the bench."
"So I think it is a complete (Miami) team that's guarding you, but also can score too," Williams continued.
A couple of other 'Canes who could be cause for concern on Thursday night is sophomore guard Shane Larkin, who effectively serves as a second point guard alongside Scott, along with 6-11 senior big man Kenny Kadji, a versatile inside-outside threat capable of tiring out his man on defense by dragging him all over the court.
"Larkin is really, really playing well. He's very aggressive and is really doing a good job. He gives them two point guards with a good assist-to-error ratio," said Williams.
"Kadji is a difficult matchup because he's a 6-11, 240-pound guy who can score from 25 feet, and he can dunk it over people inside as well."
'CANES PLAYING WELL ON ROAD
The Hurricanes haven't been afraid to play with the big boys so far this year, as their RPI is ranked in the top 10 and the have a strength of schedule ranked No. 2.
Miami is 3-2 against teams in the RPI top 50 and 1-1 against the Top 25, with its lone win against Michigan State in the ACC/ Big Ten Challenge.
They've also been playing well away from Coral Gables, with four wins against just one defeat away from home.
"I think they've got poise. They're 4-1 on the road, I think. At UMass. At Georgia Tech. At Central Florida. I'm leaving out one of their wins (the other road win was at Hawaii), and then they lost early at Florida Gulf Coast early," said Williams.
If one was looking at just the stats, this is a matchup that should be leaning towards the Tar Heels, as Miami is ranked outside the Top 100 in points, rebounding, assists, and field goal percentage, while UNC is ranked in the top 10 in points, rebounds, and assists, while ranking in the top 100 in field goal percentage.
Miami is averaging 68.8 points per game, shooting 45.1 percent from the field, while averaging 35.9 rebounds per outing.
They're virtually even in assists-to-errors (11.1 assists to 11.2 turnovers per game), while averaging a healthy 7.3 steals per game.
But given how well they're playing on the road, certainly the Tar Heels can't take anything for granted.
MUST WIN FOR TAR HEELS?
This is a game, if the Tar Heels lose, that could really hurt their chances for the NCAA Tournament, putting them in an early 0-2 hole in the ACC and facing an uphill challenge in the coming weeks with tough road games coming against Florida State, Boston College, and N.C. State.
If UNC is going to win on Thursday, it might have to do it without a key player coming off the bench.
Williams announced Wednesday that Leslie McDonald is questionable for the game after tweaking his right knee (the one he had surgically repaired in 2011) on Tuesday.
This will likely mean P.J. Hairston will again have to play a huge role coming off the bench and provide productive offense against a guard oriented team like Miami.
And Reggie Bullock will again have to provide leadership and offensive production for this team.
Bullock, Hairston, and James Michael McAdoo called a 'players' only' meeting this week after the loss at Virginia to sit down with the team and talk about what it needs to do to turn it around.
"I called a meeting with the players and we were just talking. I was just basically saying, Coach can tell us all these things he wants, but it's up to us to go out there and do it" Bullock replied. "He's coached championship teams, he knows what it takes to be a champion, and he knows what it takes to coach great players. And it's just up to us to go out there and do it."
"And I was just telling them, something's got to change, and we have to change now. And we just have to keep playing better," Bullock added. "And I think it starts with leaders like me, Dexter and McAdoo, to be able to turn this ship around."
The Tar Heels will need this kind of leadership as they continue its way through ACC play.
"Our 'Thought of the Day' (on Tuesday was) 'Great intentions are okay, but you need to act.' That's what you need to do. Put up or shut up," said Williams.
This will be the season opener for the Tar Heels in ACC play at home, and Coach Larranaga understands how hard it will be to hand the Tar Heels their first loss in Chapel Hill this season.
"One of the key statistics with Carolina is they're 7-0 at home. The nice thing for our players is we've been on the road. We've played at UMass, at Central Florida, at Georgia Tech, also very good teams in hostile environments. Hopefully we'll be ready" Larranaga replied.
Tip-off will be at 7:00 pm eastern from Chapel Hill, and will be aired on ESPN.