North Carolina is undefeated through three games, but the defending national champions know they must improve on their last contest when they face a ranked opponent for the first time this season.
The sixth-ranked Tar Heels take on No. 15 Ohio State in the semifinals of the 2K Sports Classic on Thursday night at Madison Square Garden.
After easy wins against Florida International and North Carolina Central, the Tar Heels (3-0) lacked intensity during an 88-77 home win over Valparaiso on Sunday.
Though North Carolina shot 56.1 percent and scored at least 88 points for a third straight contest, it blew much of a 24-point second-half lead, committed 14 turnovers and allowed the Crusaders to go 7 for 10 from 3-point range in the second half to make things close.
“We have no chance in New York if we play this kind of basketball,” Tar Heels coach Roy Williams said.
Williams isn’t shy about challenging his young players who are inheriting prominent roles with the departures of Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington from last year’s title team.
Senior Deon Thompson had 20 points and 6-foot-10 sophomore Ed Davis added 16 on Sunday for North Carolina. Thompson, the only returning starter from last season’s squad, is averaging a team-leading 17.7 points per game.
Like their coach, North Carolina players know that another effort like Sunday’s likely won’t cut it against the Buckeyes (2-0), who beat Alcorn State and James Madison by a combined 68 points in their first two games.
“I’m not trying to travel all the way to New York just to get embarrassed,” said Tar Heels guard Larry Drew Jr., who had 13 points against Valpo. “This team, we have a lot of potential and we need to wake up now and know the games aren’t going to get any easier.”
Paced by first-team All-Big Ten junior guard Evan Turner, the Buckeyes are excited about their first real test of the young season. Ohio State returns five players who started 25 games or more from last season’s 22-11 team that was upset by Siena in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
“It’s a great challenge, a great opportunity,” coach Thad Matta said. “When we come out of there on Friday night, we’ll know a lot more about our team.”
After recording the program’s second triple-double with 14 points, 17 rebounds and 10 assists against Alcorn State, Turner had 24 points with 17 rebounds in a 72-44 win over James Madison last Thursday.
David Lighty added 14 points and William Buford had 12 for the Buckeyes, who are shooting 49.6 percent through two games.
Though North Carolina is 9-2 all-time against Ohio State with four straight wins in the series, the Buckeyes are confident facing a program that’s won five in a row and 11 of its last 12 against Big Ten opponents.
“We’re all about competing, competing in practice - an attack mentality,” Turner said. “We’ll be prepared for any situation. It’s another game, another opportunity, another day to get better. (North Carolina) is a new team out there. We’re not really looking at them as national champions. We’re just looking at them as a great team that’s very capable.”
This is the teams’ first meeting since then-No. 1 North Carolina won 66-55 at Ohio State on Nov. 28, 2007. Thompson had 14 points for the Tar Heels, while guard Jon Diebler paced the Buckeyes with 19.
The winner of this contest faces either No. 12 California or Syracuse in Friday’s championship game. The losers meet in the consolation game.