December 27, 2015

North Carolina's non-conference slate certainly hasn't been perfect - losses in both true road games make that abundantly clear - but it seems to be hurtling toward the ACC schedule feeling especially confident about its chemistry.

With one final tuneup before conference play gets underway, the seventh-ranked Tar Heels try to make it four straight victories Monday night as they begin a busy stretch with a visit from UNC-Greensboro.

North Carolina (10-2) was the nation's preseason No. 1 but won't head into its ACC schedule on top after blowing a 16-point lead at Northern Iowa and losing on a buzzer-beater at Texas this month.

Perhaps more important than the vanity of being the country's top-ranked team is what the Tar Heels found out about themselves. They're college basketball's most efficient offense, scoring 119 points per 100 possessions according to KenPom.com, and they're sharing the ball without turning it over. North Carolina's 1.89 assist-to-turnover ratio in non-conference play is the sport's third-best since 1996-97, including 71 assists to just 26 giveaways in three wins since the loss to the Longhorns.

"That's just where the chemistry comes along," forward Isaiah Hicks, the Tar Heels' top bench scorer at 8.8 points per game, said after last Monday's 94-70 win over Appalachian State. "You know where a player is going to be."

Hicks knows about the value of an open look. He's shooting 66.7 percent from the field thanks to a team that has four players - Joel Berry II, Marcus Paige, Justin Jackson and Theo Pinson - averaging at least 3.8 assists.

"(Theo) will pass it sometimes and you won't even know where it will be," Hicks said. "He just knows where his teammates are going to be. He drives and he knows he's got me, Brice (Johnson), one of the bigs down there or he got the corner open with Nate (Britt). This is all what the coaches tell us to do, somebody drop baseline, somebody fill the corner and stuff like that. It's just knowing the spots that we are going to be at."

Johnson has emerged as UNC's go-to player in the post, putting up 25, 27 and 22 points in the last three games, but the key to any long-term success for the Tar Heels is still Paige. The senior, who dealt with multiple leg injuries last season and missed the first six games this season with a hand injury, tweaked his ankle against Appalachian State and was limited to 17 minutes.

''I'm not worried about it at all. I'm going to be fine," said Paige, who is 16 of 33 from 3-point range. "And I'm not just saying that. Last year I was saying that I was fine, but I was hurt. This is nothing.''

Paige won't have as much recovery time after this one. North Carolina opens conference play Wednesday against Clemson before hosting Georgia Tech on Saturday and visiting Florida State two days later.

The Tar Heels had their way with Greensboro (4-8) in each of the past two Decembers, outscoring the Spartans by 54 points and holding a 97-54 edge on the glass.

UNCG is coming off a pretty strong effort in an ACC arena. The Spartans were tied with North Carolina State at the under-4 timeout Tuesday before falling 58-52, with the Wolfpack's 40.4 percent shooting effort UNCG's stingiest of the season against a Division I opponent.

''I thought for the most part we forced them into difficult shots, contested shots,'' coach Wes Miller said. ''That's what our defense is supposed to be about.''

All five Spartans starters average between 9.2 and 11.4 points.

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