One of the premiere events of the nonconference season is always the ACC/Big Ten Challenge and as usual the North Carolina Tar Heels will play in one of the marquee games of the event, this season the Heels draw familiar foe Michigan State who they have played four previous times in the event with the Heels winning the last two matchups.
The Spartans will enter this season with as much preseason hype as any team in the country outside of the last two national champions and it is hype that Spartans head coach Tom Izzo thinks is deserved.
“This year I think the team gets rated on its own merit, and it deserves to be up there. I expect us to be good most years and this year we have a chance to be real good” he said during the off-season.
The Spartans will the enter the season as a consensus top 5 team, the Big Ten title favorite and was picked by Lindy’s Sports to win the national title. If the preseason hype was not enough the senior class of Adreian Payne, Keith Appling and Dan Chapman have one last chance to continue a amazing run that Coach Izzo takes a lot of pride in, every four year player in his tenure has played in at least one Final Four.
The Spartans might have the two best players at their position in the country in shooting guard Gary Harris and center Adreian Payne. The 6-10, 240 pound Payne is without question the best inside/outside big man in the country and excels in areas that most big men traditionally struggle in. He connected on 38% of his 3-point attempts while shooting 84% from the free throw line a season ago. Harris was the Big Ten Freshman of the Year last season despite dealing with a shoulder injury much of the year. He shot 41% from the 3-point line while averaging 12.9 points and now that he is fully healthy he is expected to become a force on the defensive end of the floor as well as the offensive.
Senior point Keith Appling was the team’s leading scorer at 13 points per game last season but his poor decision making proved to be costly at times for Michigan State and led them to being second from last in turnovers last season in the Big Ten. The Spartans have two solid backups in guards Travis Trice and Denzel Valentine who both averaged over 18 minutes per game last year. Junior forward Branden Dawson provides the Spartans with another outstanding defender who can guard multiple positions; he also struggled through injuries last season after making a quick recovery from a torn ACL. The Spartans will use a three-man rotation at the other post position opposite Payne with junior Alex Gauna, sophomore Matt Costello, and freshman Gavin Schilling from high school powerhouse Findlay Prep, each player has their strengths but Coach Izzo would like one of them to step and take ownership of the spot.
The Heels currently hold a 5-game winning streak over Michigan State dating back to the 2005 Final Four and have not lost to the Spartans in Roy Williams’ 10 years as UNC head coach. With a loaded roster, high expectations and a team they have struggled with in recent years the Spartan fans will create a hostile environment inside the Breslin Center for North Carolina in what could prove to be the toughest game of the nonconference season for the Tar Heels.