North Carolina and Clemson have looked like two of the ACC's top teams through the first couple months of the season, and they'll meet Saturday in one of the weekend's two matchups between ranked teams.
TV schedule: Saturday, January 5th, 12 p.m., ESPN2
Site: Littlejohn Coliseum, Clemson, SC
It's already been an eventful college basketball season, and with conference play kicking off in earnest, now is the time when the contenders will begin to separate themselves from the pretenders. The North Carolina Tar Heels and the Clemson Tigers are two teams that have stood out during the non-conference season, and each is looking to build upon their early season success to make some noise in March after missing the NCAA Tournament last year.
UNC is 10-3 on the season, and they're ranked eighth in the latest AP poll. The Tar Heels have built an impressive resume thus far, tallying wins against Arkansas, Tennessee, and Oklahoma. Carolina is fresh off a gritty win at Pitt in its first true road contest of the season, and will hope to build upon that momentum, and its 2-0 record in ACC play, into what promises to be a raucous environment in Littlejohn Coliseum.
The Tigers have been impressive as well, with a win over previously unbeaten TCU, plus road wins at Alabama and Pitt, to earn the #16 spot in the polls. Brad Brownell's bunch dropped their last game at Miami, but they've yet to lose at home.
This game will feature the two early frontrunners for ACC Player of the Year. RJ Davis has been lights out for Carolina, averaging 21.1 points and 3.6 assists per game, but Clemson's PJ Hall has been just as impactful in averaging 20.2 points and 6.5 rebounds of his own. Each player has gaudy shooting numbers, with Davis shooting a ridiculous 94.9% from the line and Hall shooting 56.3% from the floor.
Both teams have been aided by impact transfers. For North Carolina, Harrison Ingram and Cormac Ryan have played integral roles since coming over from Stanford and Notre Dame, respectively, while Clemson has benefited greatly from the arrival of former Syracuse guard Joe Girard, who is second on the team with 15.8 points per game and a sniper-like 45.2% mark from three.
The Tar Heels have been prolific on the offensive end this season thanks to improved shooting and an increase in pace from a year ago. They were ice cold to open the game against Pitt, though, going over six minutes without a single point, but still managed to score 70 points in a hostile environment to win by double digits.
Carolina ranks 11th in offensive efficiency according to KenPom, but Clemson is no slouch in that department either, coming in at 17th. This is a long-winded way of saying that there will be points aplenty in this game.
Seth Trimble elevated his play for the Tar Heels against Pitt, showing off an improved offensive game to go with his normal stellar defensive play. He could see big minutes again as Hubert Davis' best option to slow down Girard on the perimeter. The most critical matchup, though, will be Armando Bacot vs. PJ Hall. Hall's outside shooting ability could drag Bacot from the comfort of the paint, which will put an increased demand on the rest of the Tar Heels to rebound and defend the rim.
It's hard to envision a scenario where this game isn't close. Clemson is a legit threat in the ACC this year, and UNC has already put together an exponentially better profile than they did all of last year. The Tar Heels showed that they could handle a difficult environment in beating Pitt earlier this week, though (after losing twice to the Panthers last year), and that toughness, combined with the clutch play of RJ Davis, should make the difference.
Prediction: North Carolina 88, Clemson 83