For the past three weeks, coach Roy Williams and North Carolina have eagerly awaited each challenge they have faced in a stretch of six consecutive games away from home.
The top-ranked Tar Heels have one more to overcome Sunday, coming off an 11-day break as they try to emerge from this string of road games unbeaten when they face Rutgers.
North Carolina, which looks to start 9-0 for the first time since the 1997-98 squad opened 17-0, will take the court for the first time since winning 106-71 at Penn on Dec. 4.
It was the third straight true road game for the Tar Heels, who won by 11 points at Ohio State and by nine at Kentucky after beating Old Dominion and BYU to win the Las Vegas Invitational during the last weekend of November.
“Five in a row on the road, three of them true road games, it’s always extremely impressive to get those,” Williams told the school’s official Web site. “I don’t care where the team is ranked. When you win on the road at someone’s own building it’s extremely important.”
They have shown some inconsistency during this five-game stretch, getting held below 43 percent from the field in three of them and winning each of those games by less than 12 points. However, they have dominated on the boards lately, outrebounding the opposition by an average of 17.3 in the last three games.
“I like the adversity you face,” Williams said. “That prepares you. It’s not going to be smooth. It’s part of the learning process. I love playing on someone else’s true home court.”
In its most recent contest, North Carolina surpassed 100 points for the third time, led by preseason All-American Tyler Hansbrough with a season-high 29 points and 10 rebounds.
It was the third straight double-double for Hansbrough, who averages 21.4 points and 9.6 boards. He had 13 points and seven rebounds in North Carolina’s 87-48 home win over Rutgers on Dec. 28.
After Sunday, the Tar Heels play their next five games at the Dean Smith Center before visiting No. 15 Clemson on Jan. 6 to open ACC play.
First, the Tar Heels will try for a ninth straight victory over Rutgers (7-3), which is 6-0 at home.
“Going into other people’s buildings and beating them in their home stadium, their home crowd and everybody is there, it’s fun to hear the things that fans say to you or about you and then shutting them up after you beat them,” said Tar Heels swingman Danny Green, who has 39 points off the bench over the last two games.
Rutgers, which is 0-9 all-time against top-ranked opponents, has played three times since the Tar Heels last took the court. The Scarlet Knights are 2-1 in that span, including a 65-55 win over the New Jersey Institute of Technology on Thursday.
“Our players are showing a commitment to elevate their games,” Rutgers coach Fred Hill said. “As you improve individually, you improve as a team.”
Leading scorer JR Inman had 14 points and 13 rebounds for the Scarlet Knights, who have lost at Florida and Nebraska in their only games against teams from major conferences this season.
It was the third double-double for the 6-foot-9 Inman, who averages 16.8 points and 9.1 rebounds. The junior did not play in last season’s game against North Carolina.
Rutgers has lost every meeting in this series since winning the first one in 1921. The Scarlet Knights have lost five in a row versus ranked opponents since beating then-No. 22 Louisville 65-56 on Jan. 28, 2006.