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November 19, 2009, 12:53 PM ET
Looking ten hours forward and three years back

by John Gasaway

North Carolina and Ohio State will collide tonight in Madison Square Garden (ESPN2, 9 ET) in what promises to be the proverbial best game of the year so far, one that pits two top-15 teams against each other on a neutral floor. The Tar Heels are one of the most athletic teams in the country, and yet even Roy Williams‘ roster can’t claim a freak of hoops nature like Evan Turner. Surprisingly scrappy performances from Memphis and Gonzaga this week notwithstanding, tonight for the first time in 2009-10 we’ll see two elite teams picking on someone their own size.

Both teams have of course effortlessly rolled over the overmatched opponents that have come to their respective arenas thus far, so the team stats here are useless. (Quick example. Right now the Buckeyes’ efficiency margin is clocking in at a rather robust 0.49, meaning Thad Matta’s group has outscored their opponents by the moral equivalent of a full half-point for every possession they’ve played. That is quite good!) What I do find interesting this time of year, however, are the individual numbers, especially which players are taking the shots.

Which players are taking the shots 
%Shots: percentage of team’s shots taken during player’s minutes
Through games of November 18

                       %Shots
William Buford, OSU     33.5
Deon Thompson, UNC      32.0
Evan Turner, OSU        27.9
Jeremie Simmons, OSU    23.0
Tyler Zeller, UNC       22.6
David Lighty, OSU       22.6
John Henson, UNC        21.9

William Buford has spent much of OSU’s first two games applauding reserves from the bench during garbage time, but when he’s in the game he is going to shoot, period. The same can be said for Deon Thompson, who has also been an absolute monster on the offensive glass over the Heels’ first three games.

Each team might fairly be said to be in the midst of reconfiguring. The Buckeyes are trying to add defense to an offense that in 2008-09 was absurdly and indeed historically accurate in its shooting. This year’s return of David Lighty from the injured list should help that process along, as will continued beastly efforts from Turner on the defensive glass.  

Speaking of the return of defensive stalwarts, Marcus Ginyard is back in action this season for UNC. With a multi-positional stopper like Ginyard playing alongside a rebounding and shot-blocking hybrid like Ed Davis, the Heels give every indication of being excellent on D this year. (You really should buy this book for a fuller discussion of both teams.)

Last and not least, tonight’s game follows in some extraordinary footsteps. On November 29, 2006, these same two teams played an absolute jewel of a game in Chapel Hill, one that UNC won by the score of 98-89.

I realize three years is a millennium in college hoops time so here’s a quick refresher. Florida that year returned all five starters from a national championship team, but the Gators had just lost in OT to Kansas in Las Vegas, opening up the number one ranking for the Buckeyes. An injured Greg Oden was yet to make his college debut and Matta’s team had easily won its first six games at home, thanks to veterans like Ron Lewis and Jamar Butler and a “Thad Five” that included Mike Conley and Daequan Cook. As for Williams’ team, sophomore Tyler Hansbrough was welcoming freshmen like Brandan Wright, Ty Lawson, and Wayne Ellington.

The feeling nationally was that Ohio State wasn’t deserving of a number one ranking, and I agreed. But I’d also looked at the Buckeyes closely enough to know that this technically overrated team was actually being qualitatively underrated. I was sure they could give Carolina a game, even without Oden.

Well, I was right or else I wouldn’t be bringing it up now. In our book last year I nominated that game, albeit somewhat sheepishly, as one of the best regular-season games I’ve ever seen.

Both the Buckeyes and the Tar Heels showed me not only that they were as talented as advertised but also, more importantly, how seamlessly cohesive and even intelligent they could be at insanely high velocities on offense. I had to reach back to Illinois in 2005 to think of one offense that looked as good as both offenses looked that night….

There were some incredible numbers put up for offense in Chapel Hill that night, and even Roy Williams was quoted as saying, “You sit there and marvel at the level that kids are playing at offensively.” But when I lavished praise on both teams in a day-after piece, I got some dissenting responses from readers who said, in effect, it wasn’t good offense, it was bad defense from young players with no “fundamentals,” etc.

Later I shared that feedback with a former player who, coincidentally, had won the defensive player of the year award in his conference. He’d also seen that game, and when I told him of the readers’ objections I thought I could actually hear him rolling his eyes over the phone. “People have no idea,” he said, “what it takes to play that level of offense, how hard it is to make shots when you’re running full-speed for 40 minutes.”

Here’s hoping for a game even half as good tonight.

BONUS record-straightening! In the wake of Iowa’s 52-50 loss at home to Duquesne on Tuesday night, the “We stink!” lamentations of Hawkeye fans have started to ricochet around the web and by Godfrey I won’t have it! Don’t get me wrong: I myself picked Iowa to finish last in the Big Ten this year and I am well aware that Todd Lickliter’s team lost by 12 at home to Texas-San Antonio in their opener. I am not nominating the Hawkeyes as the second coming of UCLA ‘73. But surely there’s no particular shame attached to losing by two to the Dukes, who return four starters from a 9-7 A-10 team that came within six points of an NCAA bid, losing to Temple in the conference tournament title game. (Note however that Melquan Bolding did miss the Iowa game with a broken wrist.) In fact last year Ron Everhart’s team rather quietly featured one of the top offenses in the country, one that made an Ohio State-like 55 percent of its twos. This was no tomato can that rolled into Iowa City the other night.

I will not be the least bit surprised if Iowa loses games this year that make their fans cringe justifiably. This was not one of those.  

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