Both North Carolina and Ohio State were No. 1 seeds in last season’s NCAA tournament, and both were top 10 teams when the Tar Heels beat the Buckeyes in Chapel Hill last November.
But they’re in very different places now as top-ranked North Carolina travels to Columbus on Wednesday for a game against unranked Ohio State as part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
Last season, these teams also played each other in this event, with then-No. 7 North Carolina beating the No. 3 Buckeyes 98-89 at home behind 21 points and 14 rebounds from All-America forward Tyler Hansbrough.
North Carolina (5-0) brought back three starters from that team, including Hansbrough, and has been ranked No. 1 since the preseason. The Tar Heels won the Las Vegas Invitational on Saturday with a 73-63 victory over BYU to notch their first 5-0 start since 2003-04.
They were one of just three teams to beat Ohio State last season, but the Buckeyes (4-1) lost four starters - including No. 1 overall draft pick Greg Oden - and 73 percent of their scoring after reaching the national championship game. They are starting two freshmen and a sophomore alongside seniors Jamar Butler and Othello Hunter.
“There are still a lot of unknowns with our team,” Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. “When you start a season with four guys who played college basketball, it is difficult to gauge where a team should be during the season. Right now, we are looking for consistency over greatness.”
With 7-foot freshman Kosta Koufos (18.6 points per game) leading the way, Ohio State started 3-0 and turned heads with a 79-65 win over then-No. 21 Syracuse in the NIT Season Tip-Off semifinals. But the Buckeyes imploded in the title game Friday against then-No. 16 Texas A&M, losing 70-47 and shooting just 24.6 percent from the field as freshman guard Jon Diebler was 0-of-9 and Koufos was 4-of-16.
They bounced back to beat VMI 90-57 on Sunday, when Koufos shot 9-of-13 for 22 points and grabbed 14 rebounds.
“We loved Kosta to death,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams. “I told Thad last year I thought he had the best freshman center prospect in the country with Greg (Oden), and I feel the same way with Kosta.”
Koufos should get another good test from the 6-foot-9 Hansbrough, who is averaging 23.0 points and 9.0 rebounds. The junior was the MVP of the Las Vegas Invitational after scoring 21 in the final against BYU.
North Carolina played most of that game without standout sophomore Ty Lawson, whom Matta has called “one of the best point guards in the country.” Lawson injured his ankle just two minutes into the game and didn’t return, and Williams was unsure of Lawson’s status before Tuesday’s practice.
“In watching him play this season, I can see the improvements he has made and the maturity,” Matta said of Lawson. “He’s a lot more confident in what he is doing out there.”
For North Carolina, sophomore guard Wayne Ellington and junior reserve Danny Green, who had 15 and 14 points, respectively, against BYU, also have both shown improvement from last season. Ellington’s scoring is up from 11.7 to 17.0 points per game, while Green is chipping in 13.2 off the bench after averaging just 5.2 points in 2006-07.
Before last season’s game, the teams hadn’t met since 1993, but North Carolina is 8-2 all-time against Ohio State. The Buckeyes are 1-4 in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, but have remarkably won six of their last seven games against teams ranked No. 1 in the country, including recent wins over Wisconsin (last March) and Illinois (2005).
This is the first true road game of the season for the Tar Heels, though they have played three neutral site contests. They won’t play again in Chapel Hill until Dec. 19, as this is the first of four straight on the road.