The last time North Carolina faced a Big East opponent, Rutgers coach Fred Hill was on the other bench as an assistant. The Tar Heels beat Villanova 67-66 in the NCAA tournament regional semifinals en route to the 2005 national title.
The North Carolina team Hill is facing Thursday night may be just as talented as that one.
The second-ranked Tar Heels begin a five-game homestand in search of an eighth straight victory when they welcome surging Rutgers to the Smith Center.
North Carolina’s talent-laden 2005 championship team featured four NBA first-round draft picks—Sean May, Rashad McCants, Raymond Felton and Marvin Williams.
Two years later, the Tar Heels (10-1) have a completely different lineup— one with perhaps just as much ability. Sophomore forward Tyler Hansbrough leads the way with 18.6 points per game and three freshmen also average in double figures—Brandan Wright (15.4), Wayne Ellington (12.4) and Ty Lawson (10.1).
Rutgers (6-5) has won five straight, but hasn’t faced a team close to the caliber of North Carolina all season.
“I feel much better about our team now and I think we have made strides, but again, we have a major challenge in front of us going down to North Carolina and playing them at their place,” Hill said. “It’s going to be a great experience and you love games like that.
“You just toss the ball up, go play and you see what happens. We will learn from it, whether we can go down and pull off an upset, or whether we go down there and just learn a lot more about our team.”
North Carolina is playing for the first time since a 69-48 victory at Saint Louis on Friday. It was the Tar Heels’ first game in St. Louis since winning the 2005 title game over Illinois.
Hansbrough had 15 points and matched a career high with 13 rebounds to help the Tar Heels pull away after leading 27-26 at halftime. Wright added 12 points and four blocks.
North Carolina, averaging an ACC-best 89.8 points per game, was held to its lowest point total of the season.
The Tar Heels are 6-0 at home this season, winning by an average of more than 30 points per game. They meet Dayton and Pennsylvania on this homestand before opening ACC play against Florida State on Jan. 7.
Rutgers is facing a ranked opponent for the first time this season and has won only once in its last 15 games against Top 25 teams.
The Scarlet Knights are shooting 46.7 percent over the last five games after making 36.6 percent during the 1-5 start.
Marquis Webb scored 14 points to help Rutgers rally from a 10-point deficit with just under eight minutes left in a 67-61 victory over Lehigh on Friday.
“They never lost their composure and I think that’s a sign of guys getting better,” Hill said. “I don’t think if this game was in the first two or three games of the season, we’d be able to have that composure.”
The Tar Heels have won seven straight meetings against the Scarlet Knights, the most recent being a 71-67 victory in the 2002 preseason NIT.