Saturday December 20th, 2014

CHICAGO – Officially, the CBS national airwaves carried the Ohio State-North Carolina game, but this was Discovery Channel programming. The Buckeyes hadn’t played any truly good team beyond Louisville, and they lost that one. The Tar Heels had been maddeningly mercurial, beating UCLA and Florida but losing to Butler and Iowa, and remained in search of direction. A CBS Sports Classic showdown at the United Center almost inevitably was going to be instructive about either team, either way.

A 82-74 victory for the Tar Heels was far more nerve-wracking than it needed to be, thanks to a quick flurry of turnovers late in the second half. Still, North Carolina seemed to find its footing while Ohio State’s prospects became a little more unsettled. Here are three quick thoughts off the action:

1) North Carolina looked as complete as it has all year

That’s a nice step for a mercurial crew, especially on the defensive end. Yes, the Tar Heels were ineffective guarding the three-point line early, with the Buckeyes hitting 50 percent from behind the line in the first half, and they missed eight free throws in the final two minutes. But Ohio State still shot just 34.7 percent overall. That’s certainly a winning figure for North Carolina, especially when its own ball movement is spectacular. The Tar Heels assisted on their first nine buckets of the game and 23 out of 29 overall. Early in the second half, a feed to Kennedy Meeks in the post deflected off the center’s hands and out to Marcus Paige, who drained a jumper from the wing. It was that sort of day offensively. Even when things went bad, they went good.

2) Ohio State’s frontcourt, or lack thereof, got exposed.

North Carolina feasted in the paint, outscoring the Buckeyes there 34-20, and the Tar Heels’ high-low passes from big to big to dice up a zone defense were a thing of beauty. There’s a gaping hole where consistent big-man play should be for Thad Matta’s team. But how much this actually costs the Buckeyes throughout Big Ten play is a reasonable question to ask; Wisconsin absolutely will carve up a frontcourt that doesn’t show any improvement from where it was Saturday. Beyond that, the league won’t put on a parade of skilled big men to hurt Ohio State week after week. But if you’re going to make a deep March run, you’re going to need a better presence in the paint than this.

3) North Carolina may be developing options...

...but Ohio State isn’t, and that’s why the Tar Heels have a more realistic shot for their respective league title – even if the Buckeyes play in an easier league. D’Angelo Russell, the Buckeyes’ star freshman and leading scorer, shot 10 of 37 from the floor in losses to Louisville and North Carolina. He had 11 points on 4 of 17 shooting Saturday. The Buckeyes’ Big Three -- Russell, Shannon Scott and Sam Thompson -- were a combined 13 of 38. Meanwhile, Marcus Paige didn’t score until midway through the first half for North Carolina, and that was on just his second shot of the game about 10 minutes in. The Tar Heels were able to get production elsewhere, most notably from Brice Johnson (18 points), and that’s why they led for all but 22 seconds of this game. And that’s why at least some hope remains that they can push toward the top of the ACC -- even though it’s a stretch to put them in the same breath as Duke, Louisville and Virginia at this point. As for Ohio State, it’s an extension of the big man problem in a way, but the Buckeyes apparently have little going for them if their lead man, Russell, can’t find his way on a given night.

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