For UNLV fans, the memory of last season's matchup with North Carolina is still one that sticks out in their mind. The Tar Heels were the top-ranked team in the country and UNLV was unranked, but some hot shooting in the second half of that game allowed for the Rebels to pull away for the 90-80 upset in the Orleans Arena. The win essentially put UNLV back in the national spotlight for the first time in a while.
Almost a year later, the roles have changed. North Carolina, having lost four players in the first round of the NBA Draft, is struggling so far on the season. Beginning the season ranked 9th in the nation, the Tar Heels were expected to be a contender with James Michael McAdoo. Since then, North Carolina has yet to find a decent non-conference win and have Butler, Indiana, and Texas. For the Tar Heels, this is their final game before conference season begins and to get a win over the 20th ranked Rebels would certainly help improve their image come March.
The Runnin' Rebels used their victory over North Carolina last season to propel themselves to a high ranking before dropping off at the end of the season. So far this year, with the exception of a early season loss to Oregon, UNLV has shown promise for the season. Unfortunately, they haven't had a true tough test so far this season, having been favored in every game so far. Playing on the road in a hostile environment like the Dean Smith Center is certainly a test, even with the Tar Heels struggling so far this season.
Speaking of the Dean Smith Center, the arena has been quite the gauntlet for non-conference opponents in the past. The last non-conference home loss for North Carolina? A loss to Illinois... in 2005. The bottom line is teams don't just come into Chapel Hill and walk away with a victory, especially during non-conference season. North Carolina is sure to defend their home court vigorously.
In order for UNLV to win, the Rebels are going to have to take advantage of some mismatches, mainly the one at point guard. Anthony Marshall's efficiency levels have been at a career high this season and it seems that the guard continues to improve as the season goes on. On the flip side, North Carolina's Marcus Paige has been having trouble getting acclimated to the college game and is currently lacking in experience. Anthony Marshall can, and will need to, exploit this mismatch in order for consistent success for the Runnin' Rebels on offense.
It will also be interesting to see how James Michael McAdoo does with the physicality of Anthony Bennett and Khem Birch down low. While McAdoo has been producing so far this season, he's had troubles at times with physical defenders, such as Indiana's Cody Zeller. Bennett and Birch have proven to be tough post players so far this season and could give the Tar Heels' star forward some trouble.
Certainly expect this game to become a track meet. Both schools love to push the tempo and get in transition, so the score most likely will be in the 80's, barring some sort of blowout. It's tough to say who wins the game, simply because of the home court advantage the Tar Heels have in this game, something they didn't have in their three losses this season. This will be a game worth tuning into.