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The Dagger: College Basketball Blog

UNLV loss reveals holes North Carolina must patch quickly

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

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Next Saturday's long-awaited showdown between North Carolina and Kentucky will still feature the nation's top-ranked team.

It's just not going to be the Tar Heels.

North Carolina will likely cede the top spot in the polls to the Wildcats as a result of a stunning 90-80 loss to UNLV on Saturday night. The Tar Heels had looked the part of a national championship contender in overwhelming their first five opponents rather easily, but they responded poorly to unexpected resistance from a Rebels team that in retrospect was probably better than advertised.

Whether the cracks UNLV exposed in North Carolina are long-term concerns should become clearer by this time next weekend. The Tar Heels host No. 11 Wisconsin on Wednesday in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge and visit Kentucky on Saturday, two games that should serve as an early litmus test to determine if North Carolina should still be viewed as the favorite to cut down the nets in New Orleans.

For North Carolina to win both or even one of those games, the Tar Heels must address some of the problems that plagued them against UNLV.

• They need better defense from Kendall Marshall, whose lack of lateral quickness left him unable to keep Rebels point guard Oscar Bellfield out of the lane. Bellfield had 16 points and nine assists, ominous statistics considering he's not in the same class as the next two point guards North Carolina faces: savvy senior Jordan Taylor of Wisconsin and ultra-talented freshman Marquis Teague of Kentucky.

• They need to match their opponents' intensity. Because North Carolina entered the year as the national title favorite, every opponent will be even more revved up than usual for a chance to topple the Tar Heels. UNLV seemed to want it more on Saturday night, playing with energy and effort that erased its size disadvantage and resulted in a 48-39 advantage on the glass and a 20-6 edge in second-chance points. (It also didn't help North Carolina that center Tyler Zeller played just 24 minutes as a result of foul trouble).

• They need a healthy Harrison Barnes. The sophomore forward reportedly left Orleans Arena on crutches after turning his right ankle late in the first half scrambling on the sideline for a loose ball. Barnes still played 30 minutes and finished with 15 points on 6-for-16 shooting, but the Tar Heels would prefer if he's at full strength next week given the caliber of competition. {YSP:MORE}

There were a few bright spots for North Carolina on Saturday night, most notably the play of P.J. Hairston. The freshman guard showed signs he's capable of filling the role of shooter off the bench, scoring 15 points and sinking 3 of 5 three-pointers to help keep the Tar Heels competitive on a night when their big-name players struggled.

Much of the credit for making North Carolina look pedestrian for at least one night should go to UNLV, which has seized the role of Mountain West favorite from New Mexico with its sizzling 7-0 start. The Rebels are getting a nightly double-double from UCLA transfer Mike Moser, inspired play from seniors Chace Stanback and Oscar Bellfield and unexpected scoring from defensive-minded reserve guard Justin Hawkins.

It was surprising to see UNLV knock the Tar Heels off balance with a 14-0 run to start the second half and then finish them off without too much resistance, but for now we can only guess at what the result means.

Maybe it's a sign North Carolina has some holes to patch. Next week the Tar Heels can prove otherwise.

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