Entering the new season ranked No. 1 in the AP Poll, the North Carolina men’s basketball team will face a challenging slate of non-conference opponents looking to knock the Tar Heels off the top spot.
Last year, the team’s non-conference slate featured a series of wins against non-Power Five opponents, but UNC struggled against some of the nation’s powerhouse programs – including an 0-3 mark against Purdue, Tennessee and Kentucky.
After a run to the national championship game, the Tar Heels will look to improve its early-season play against several Big Ten teams and tough competition in the Phil Knight Invitational.
Here’s a preliminary look at these contests.
Phil Knight Invitational
After participating in the Hall of Fame Tipoff last season, the Tar Heels will travel to Portland to play the second rendition of the Phil Knight Invitational from Nov. 24-27.
When the Tar Heels last played in the event five years ago, the team advanced to the championship game before falling to Michigan State. While the Spartans will be one of the teams in the tournament this year, other quality programs will also provide challenging tests.
Following a matchup against Portland, North Carolina will face either Iowa State or Villanova – two teams that had success in the NCAA Tournament last season. Other potential opponents include Alabama, UConn and Oregon, who are each looking to take the next step to national relevance.
Following the tournament, UNC will have little time to prepare for a tough road test at No. 13 Indiana on Nov. 30 in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
Under first-year head coach Mike Woodson, the Hoosiers posted a 21-14 record and snapped the program’s five-year NCAA Tournament drought before falling in the round of 64. The team will return four starters from last season, including forward Trayce Jackson-Davis – a Preseason All-American who averaged 18.3 points, 8.1 rebounds and 2.3 blocks in his junior year in Bloomington.
Assembly Hall is universally regarded as one of the most hostile road atmospheres in college basketball, so the game should provide the Tar Heels with added experience for tougher tests that lie ahead.
On Dec. 17, North Carolina will head to Madison Square Garden to take on Ohio State in another marquee matchup.
The Tar Heels last faced the Buckeyes early in the 2019-20 season, when Ohio State came into Chapel Hill and picked up a convincing 74-49 win. Senior forward Armando Bacot and graduate wing Leaky Black are the only holdovers from that season’s roster, but the team will look for a different result in the CBS Sports Classic.
Ohio State has been a program that has regularly flirted with top-25 status, and the Buckeyes have received 23 votes to be featured in this year’s preseason poll. Although the team lost key contributors Malaki Branham and E.J. Liddell to the NBA Draft, forward Zed Key will return to give the team a reliable post presence.
The last non-conference test of the season will come on Dec. 21 when the Tar Heels head to Charlotte to face the Wolverines in the inaugural Jumpman Invitational.
UNC defeated Michigan in last year’s ACC/Big Ten Challenge and came away with a quality 72-51 win in the Smith Center. Although the Wolverines were struggling at the time with a 4-3 record after the loss, the team responded with impressive play in the postseason and narrowly fell to Villanova in the Sweet 16.
Michigan’s offensive game plan runs through junior big man Hunter Dickinson, the 7-foot-1, two-time All-Big Ten Selection. In his sophomore season, Dickinson led the team with 18.6 points and 8.6 rebounds per game while also showing an impressive array of passing skills with 2.3 assists.
In last year’s outing, the Virginia native struggled with foul trouble and finished with four points and five rebounds. If he can stay on the court in this year’s contest, his matchup with Bacot could be one of the more noteworthy one-on-one pairings of the season.
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