North Carolina-UCLA Preview
Although the most compelling matchup between North Carolina and UCLA may come in the back court, the players missing inside might make the biggest difference.
While Marcus Paige and Bryce Alford will take the court Saturday, Kennedy Meeks will not for the 11th-ranked Tar Heels when they meet the No. 22 Bruins in the CBS Sports Classic at Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
Meeks will miss his second straight game with a bruised left knee, and the statuses of UCLA starting center Thomas Welsh and reserve Prince Ali are iffy. Each missed Tuesday's 89-80 win over Louisiana-Lafayette, Welsh with a stomach virus and Ali after bruising his left knee the game before. Welsh's status is unclear and Ali is day to day.
North Carolina (8-2) was without Paige in its first six games and will play at least the next two weeks without Meeks, who is averaging 12.3 points and 7.4 rebounds. UCLA's two big wins - 87-77 over then-No. 1 Kentucky on Dec. 3 and 71-66 at then-No. 20 Gonzaga on Saturday - came with injuries during or before the game to key big men for each.
But the Bruins will still have to handle the inside presence of Brice Johnson, who poured in a career-high 25 points with 10 rebounds in UNC's 96-72 win over Tulane on Wednesday that helped ease the pain of Saturday's 84-82 loss to Texas at the buzzer.
"With Kennedy being out, I knew I'd have to play a little bit more," Johnson said. "I had to be able to step up."
The Tar Heels managed just four offensive rebounds against the Longhorns, their fewest in 13 seasons under coach Roy Williams, but had a season-high 17 against the Green Wave. North Carolina also had 30 assists on 36 field goals and shot 50 percent for the fourth game in a row. It was the team's first 30-assist game since Dec. 8, 2012.
Paige had seven of them to go with 16 points and has averaged 17.3 points and 4.8 assists in four games since returning from a hand injury. He made 4 of 8 attempts from 3-point range to move to 13 of 24 from deep on the season.
Alford has also found his range of late and will try to help UCLA (8-3) to its sixth straight win after opening the season 3-3. He made 10 of 15 shots and 4 of 6 from long range against Louisiana-Lafayette en route to a season-high 27 points - four off his career best. The junior guard has made 10 of his last 19 shots from deep.
He's taken on a larger offensive role this season late in games and made a key 3-pointer with 1:49 left on Tuesday after Louisiana-Lafayette clawed within six points.
"It's something you learn through experience," Alford said. "I went through stretches last year where I had to figure that out.
"Now I know when the team needs me to score."
North Carolina leads the series 7-3 and has won six of the last eight meetings - the latest a 78-56 victory last Nov. 27 in the Bahamas at the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament.
Paige scored 21 points in that win, while Justin Jackson had 12 and Isaiah Hicks added 10. Alford finished with 10 points on just 3-of-10 shooting, missing all four of his 3-point attempts while matching a career worst with six turnovers.