Lucas: Familiar Foe Returns
It's relatively early in the season, Rick Barnes is the opponent, and he's brought with him a somewhat untested team that nonetheless boasts a gaudy record and appears to have plenty of potential. This is not exactly an unfamiliar scenario in Carolina basketball history.
In the past, however, Barnes usually arrived at the Smith Center wearing a different shade of orange. In his four years at Clemson, Barnes had four early-January meetings with Carolina, games that often were some of the early marquee contests on the ACC schedule. In all four of those meetings, his Tigers were ranked in the national top 25. In all four of those meetings, Carolina won.
The first meeting of what would become a very contentious series happened in 1995, when Barnes' Tigers had built a 10-1 record. Barnes put on quite a show late in the game and was ejected after watching Jerry Stackhouse dominate the second half, as the sophomore scored 15 second-half points (15 points in one half against those particular hardnosed Clemson teams was a major achievement) and led Carolina to a 61-48 win.
The next season, the Tigers arrived in Chapel Hill 11-0, and were promptly sent home with an 86-53 whipping. But it was 1997 that probably represented the height of Barnes' frustration against the Tar Heels, as his team showed up at the Smith Center 16-2 and ranked second in the country. Some of the previous meetings had featured a Clemson team that had fattened up on suspect nonconference schedules; this was not one of those, as the Tigers would eventually win 23 games and advance to the NCAA Tournament round of 16.
And still, the result against Carolina was the same. All the things you would expect to happen in that particular era of the series, happened: Antawn Jamison scored 22 points, Tom Wideman clubbed Shammond Williams into the basket support, and the Tar Heels took a 61-48 win.
The last early-season meeting between the two teams during the Barnes era at Clemson was a 73-70 UNC win at Littlejohn Coliseum in 1998. Fittingly, in the last UNC-Clemson game Barnes coached at the Smith Center, the Tigers finished with just four players on the court because of foul issues. It's too bad there's no video online of any of the above games, because you really had to see most of them to believe them. It was about as close to a WWF storyline, with sideshows and offcourt antics, as the late-1990s ACC had to offer.
By that point, Barnes--who had feuded with Smith at the 1995 ACC Tournament and whose teams played a very physical style--had reached enemy of the state status in Chapel Hill. But his move to Texas put him in the same conference with Roy Williams, where the two found that they had plenty in common. Both are North Carolina natives, both have a deep appreciation for Atlantic Coast Conference basketball (although Barnes' appreciation runs toward the red side), and both tend to prefer the same no-nonsense approach to coaching and relating to players. It helps, too, that Barnes has been incredibly complimentary of Smith and contrite about his actions.
Since Williams came back to Carolina, Texas has been a regular foe, first appearing in the 2004 NCAA Tournament, and then becoming a regular part of the nonconference schedule during the 2009-10 season. The teams will meet again in Austin next season.
And, quietly, the Longhorns have dominated the series. They've won four of the five meetings in the Williams era, a surge that has enabled Texas--with a 5-3 overall record against Carolina--to be one of just six active Division I programs that have played at least five games against the Tar Heels and amassed a winning record (the others are Georgetown, George Washington, Indiana, Navy--yep, the Midshipmen are 14-6 against UNC--and West Virginia).
But Barnes has a different kind of team in Austin this year. Their wins over Carolina in December of 2009 and 2010 came when they appeared to have the more talented, experienced team on the floor. This year, they've almost entirely remade their roster from what Carolina saw in last year's 85-67 loss in Austin. They're 9-1, including an overtime win at Temple, but the rest of the schedule is somewhat suspect and includes just one road game
They're a balanced group without a superstar, and have five players averaging in double figures. All ten scholarship players have scored double digits at least once this year, and a different player has been their leading scorer in each of their last four games. They feature a freshman point guard, Isaiah Taylor, who has a 4:1 assist/turnover ratio in his last four games.
So the numbers suggest the Longhorns are undoubtedly tough, but they also suggest they're relatively untested--very much like some of those Clemson teams.
Much like those squads, and although they start three guards, Texas is a physical team that will try to win the game on the glass. The Longhorns, led by Cameron Ridley, have an offensive rebounding percentage of 38.5 percent, not that far off the pace set by Kentucky and UAB among teams the Tar Heels have faced this year. But they're even better on the defensive glass, where they've allowed opponents a defensive rebounding percentage of just 26.5-a better figure than anyone on Carolina's schedule this year.
In other words, expect a tense, physical battle at the Smith Center tonight (tickets are available). Just like old times.
Adam Lucas is the editor of CAROLINA.