CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Can one win mean more than one win?
Coach Roy Williams saw it happen his first season at North Carolina in 2003-04, when a three-point victory over top-ranked Connecticut boosted his team’s assuredness and bond. He’s hoping the same sort of thing happens Saturday, when the unranked Tar Heels face No. 20 UNLV at the Smith Center.
“Just getting some confidence against that kind of level would be good for this team,’’ he said Friday.
For both squads, a win would mark an important signature victory.
The fast-paced Rebels, who return many of the players that helped upset the then-top-ranked Tar Heels in Las Vegas last season, enter the rematch on a nine-game winning streak. They came back to win at Portland and then won on a last-second shot at Cal earlier this month, but a victory on the road against a “brand” name like North Carolina (even an unranked UNC) would add even more credibility to a team that has earned it.
The Tar Heels, meanwhile, are out to regain some of the luster they lost by falling to the three “name” teams they have faced this season: Butler in the Maui Invitational, at Indiana and at Texas. A win would also give a much-needed NCAA tournament résumé boost before the start of ACC play.
But it could be an uphill battle.
While the Tar Heels (9-3) have struggled with defense, consistency, and balance on offense; the Rebels (11-1) are limiting foes to 37.1 percent shooting and have five players averaging double figures – meaning they defend, and are tough to defend.
A few things to watch during Saturday's 2 p.m. ET tip:
Though UNC has struggled to find stability in the post -- leading scorer James Michael McAdoo isn’t a traditional back-to-the-basket player, and three different players have started at center over its past three games -- the Rebels have an awful lot of strength in their frontcourt.
Six-foot-8, 240-pound forward Anthony Bennett has been a load for opposing defenses, averaging 19.5 points and 8.5 rebounds.
“I’d have to really concentrate and think a long time before I could think of a freshman in the country that has the numbers he has at this level,’’ Williams said. “And I say 'think a long time' because I don’t think there is one.”
In addition, Khem Birch, a 6-9, 220-pound midseason transfer from Pittsburgh, has come off the bench his first three games with the Rebels but is already averaging 11.7 points and 6.7 rebounds. Senior Quintrell Thomas, who has been starting in the place of the injured Mike Moser, was the one who hit the game-winning putback at Cal.
And although Moser, a preseason All-American by some sites, wasn’t expected to be ready to play Saturday after dislocating his elbow, he did start practicing earlier this week.
UNC’S OUTSIDE SHOOTING
Williams has made it clear he wants his wing-heavy team -- which is attempting just over 21 3-point shots per game -- to be more balanced on offense, meaning he wants to see the ball go through the post more often.
But he still needs his team to hit from the outside, too.
Although the Tar Heels are connecting on 37.4 percent of their 3-point attempts for the season, that number dips dramatically to 22.4 percent in their three losses. One reason, Williams has said, is the team tends to panic and rush shots when it gets behind (as it did in all three defeats).
Thus, while accuracy is key, so will poise and focus against a UNLV team allowing opponents to make only 28.6 percent of their 3-pointers this season.
POINT GUARD PLAY
A bit lost in the storylines of Bennett’s emergence, Birch’s arrival and Moser’s injury has been the strong performance of UNLV point guard Anthony Marshall. The senior averages 10.3 points and 5.3 assists, plays a team-high 31.1 minutes per game and was recently named to the watch list for the Bob Cousy award, which honors the nation’s top ballhandler.
His savvy poses a tough challenge for UNC freshman point guard Marcus Paige, who is coming off a nine-assist, zero-turnover game against McNeese State.
“A player satisfied with his game has no opportunity to get better, so I’m definitely not satisfied, and I think I can do more to help the team,’’ Paige said when assessing his play so far. “But I’m not disappointed, either. I think I’m doing all right, with a lot of room to go.”