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The Daily Tar Heel

Tar Heels, Spartans Face Young Season's First Tests

The records of North Carolina and Michigan State show that each team has played three regular season games in the 2000-01 season.

But neither team has faced a true test - until tonight. The sixth-ranked Tar Heels travel to East Lansing, Mich., to take on the third-ranked Spartans in a battle of undefeated teams at the Breslin Center at 7:30 p.m.

"You don't really know exactly where you're at this early in the season," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. "Some people have asked if it's too early to play a team like North Carolina."

The answer to that question remains to be seen. But last season, it was the Tar Heels who weren't ready for the Spartans. Just as they will tonight, the two teams played Dec. 1, 1999, as part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.

Michigan State rolled into Chapel Hill without point guard Mateen Cleaves, who was out with a broken foot, and handed 3-0 UNC its first home-opening loss since 1928.

UNC coach Matt Doherty wasn't around for that defeat, but he knows what happened and wants to make sure there isn't a repeat.

"I think we have a lot to use in terms of motivation," Doherty said. "They're the defending national champion, ranked No. 2 in the country, they're on their home court, and we lost to them last year."

If UNC is to turn the tables on the Spartans this season, it will need a better effort from center Brendan Haywood.

The Tar Heels got annihilated on the boards 41-26 in last year's meeting, largely because Haywood was a no-show. Haywood tallied four points and one rebound in 25 minutes.

"Brendan, he had an awful game last year against Michigan State," Doherty said. "So, he's got an opportunity to redeem himself."

The Spartans, meanwhile, will again be without Cleaves, who is now in the NBA. But they've been getting a lift from senior guard Charlie Bell, who has assumed Cleaves' role as team leader.

Bell has opened the season with a hot hand, shooting 62.9 percent from the field and averaging a team-high 19.3 points per game. He has been starting games at point guard before sliding over to shooting guard once freshman Marcus Taylor checks in off the bench.

UNC's point guard situation is less certain. Freshman Adam Boone has started all three games, but freshman Brian Morrison and sophomore Jonathan Holmes also have seen big minutes.

"I might tighten up the rotation a little bit," Doherty said Tuesday, "but I'm not going to change the starting lineup."

Doherty must decide at some point if Ronald Curry fits into the team's point guard plans. Curry and power forward Julius Peppers are with the team now that the football season is over, and both could play against Michigan State.

But no one knows for sure if they will. Just as no one knows if Michigan State and North Carolina are ready for their first true tests of the season: each other.

"There's a scary part to it, especially when you're a highly ranked team," Izzo said. "But it's great that, win or lose, you get an idea of what your strengths are, what your weaknesses are and what you need to work on."

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