Since opening the season with a win over Notre Dame, North Carolina hasn’t faced a dangerous opponent.
That’s about to change.
The Tar Heels, 4-0 behind freshman guard Cole Anthony — the son of UNLV great Greg Anthony — face Alabama today in the opening round of the Battle 4 Atlantis. A win would set up a semifinal matchup with Michigan or Iowa State, and the other half of the Atlantis bracket includes Gonzaga, Oregon and Seton Hall.
After ordinary wins over the likes of UNC Wilmington, Gardner Webb, and Elon, North Carolina’s non-conference strength of schedule is ranked 336th by KenPom.com. The Zags’ (No. 334) isn’t much better. A rematch in The Bahamas of the 2017 national championship game would be a big boost for both teams’ resumes. Gonzaga would be favored by 1.5 or 2, per Pomeroy’s numbers.
Anthony struggled in the Tar Heels’ win over Elon, going 0-for-5 from 3-point range. He will be tested against tougher competition over the next month. North Carolina returns from the Caribbean for a two-week stretch that includes hosting Ohio State and traveling to Virginia and Gonzaga.
Four of the Zags’ six wins have come by 30 or more points — they beat Cal State Bakersfield by 28 on Saturday. They struggled to put away Texas-Arlington at home, and the Bulldogs’ only halfway decent win was a 79-49 destruction of rebuilding Texas A&M.
Gonzaga’s Dec. 18 meeting with North Carolina in Spokane, Wash. — the second game of a two-year, home-and-home series — follows games against Washington and Arizona, the Zags’ toughest stretch of the season.
Oregon is one of the few highly ranked teams with multiple good wins thus far. The Ducks beat Memphis (with James Wiseman) and Houston, both top-50 programs, according to KenPom. If Oregon can go through Seton Hall, Gonzaga and North Carolina to a Battle 4 Atlantis title, it would probably mean a spot in the top 5 next week.
The Battle 4 Atlantis isn’t the only tournament this week providing highly ranked teams with stiffer early-season competition.
Nearly 5,000 miles to the west, the Maui Invitational, whose title game is today, featured No. 3 Michigan State and No. 4 Kansas.
No. 5 Maryland plays in the Orlando Invitational beginning Thursday. Marquette, Temple, USC and Davidson could all pose a challenge to the Terrapins.
The Las Vegas Invitational (Thursday and Friday at The Orleans Arena) serves up some intriguing contrasts in style.
Texas Tech and San Diego State both boast top-50 defenses. The Red Raiders take on Iowa and its No. 6 offense at 5 p.m. The Aztecs face Creighton (eighth-best offense, per KenPom) in the nightcap.
Texas-Arlington vs. Furman -5: Last season Furman won its first 12 games, including an overtime upset of defending-champion Villanova, and made its first-ever appearance in the Top 25.
The Paladins are 5-1 to start the season with their only loss coming at Alabama. The Mavericks are 2-3, but that includes losses to Oregon and Gonzaga. Furman gets the advantage playing close to home in Elon, N.C. FURMAN
Iowa vs. Texas Tech -5: In a battle of offense vs. defense, it’s usually smart to go with the defensive-minded team.
The Red Raiders are especially good at limiting their opponents on offensive rebounding, an Iowa strength. And on offense, this Texas Tech team is ahead of where last season’s national runner-up was at this point in the season. TEXAS TECH
Davidson vs. Marquette -4: The Wildcats are off to an underwhelming start.
There was no shame in falling to Auburn, but double-digit losses against Charlotte and Wake Forest were head-scratchers.
Davidson has been horrible on the offensive boards and has trouble guarding on defense. It’s hard to envision the Wildcats containing Markus Howard. MARQUETTE
DePaul at Minnesota -2: The Blue Demons won their first six games despite struggling with turnovers and free-throw shooting.
DePaul has become a good shooting team, and while the Golden Gophers have been solid on defense, they’re 0-3 against top-150 competition. DEPAUL
Last week: 2-2