Last year, the Michigan men’s basketball team was run out of the Dean E. Smith Center in an 86-71 loss to North Carolina.
This year, as part of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, the two teams will match up again — this time with a venue change, as the seventh-ranked Wolverines will take on the 11th-ranked Tar Heels in Ann Arbor.
Of course, these aren’t the same teams that squared off in Chapel Hill, N.C., last November. North Carolina (6-1) no longer has star point guard Joel Berry or wing Theo Pinson. Instead, surrounding forward Luke Maye — who has been in the National Player of the Year conversation since his breakout season last year — are center Garrison Brooks, forward Cameron Johnson and two heralded freshmen in guard Coby White and forward Nassir Little. Both were top-25 recruits who have already made their presence known early in the season.
Michigan (6-0), on the other hand, lost forward Moritz Wagner, guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and wing Duncan Robinson — three of its five starters in last year’s game. And the starting point guard at this time last year was Eli Brooks. A month later, he lost his job to then-sophomore Zavier Simpson, who has since become the soul of the Wolverines. Sophomore guard Jordan Poole, sophomore forward Isaiah Livers and junior center Jon Teske have seen increased roles, while freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis has impressed early.
With both schools off to good starts — Michigan beat reigning national champion Villanova on the road, while the Tar Heels defeated UCLA — the matchup is one of the Wolverines’ most anticipated this year.
The Daily spoke with former North Carolina player and current Tar Heels radio analyst Eric Montross about the matchup and the history between the two schools.
North Carolina’s first trip to Ann Arbor
Michigan has a lot of history with the Tar Heels. Most notably, the two met in the 1993 National Championship game, famous for Chris Webber calling a timeout that the Wolverines didn’t have. Montross played for the title-winning North Carolina team that year. The two teams had also met in the NCAA Tournament in 1987, 1988 and 1989. But despite that, the Tar Heels have never played in Ann Arbor.
“It’s almost mind-boggling that these teams haven’t met in Ann Arbor,” Montross said. “ … Top programs in the country and top players in the country want to play against the best players in the best venues, and there’s no doubt that Crisler Arena is one of the best venues, and this is one of the best teams.”
When the Tar Heels take the court on Wednesday, they will hear Roy Williams’ voice in their head, telling them to hang onto the basketball.
Turnovers weren’t the only problem in North Carolina’s loss to Texas last week, but they were a big part of it. The Tar Heels turned the ball over 17 times and allowed the Longhorns 31 points off turnovers.
“They’re not typically a turnover-prone team, and I think as they watch the film of the game against Texas, they saw there were a lot of unforced turnovers,” Montross said. “But at the same time, those, what we would call unforced turnovers … you could argue that they actually were forced by a little bit of a frenetic defense that Texas conveyed.”
That won’t work against a team like the Wolverines, who are known for their relentless defense. Opposing teams have had double-digit turnovers in every game so far against Michigan, and the Wolverines’ transition attack is good at converting those into points.
“Certainly, Carolina will put a premium on a low number of turnovers versus Michigan,” Montross said.
Anticipation for hotly contested matchup
This game has gotten a lot of national hype, and for good reason. Beyond rivalry games, few matchups garner the level of enthusiasm that players and fans have for marquee non-conference contests.
“Even if they haven’t played while they’ve been in college, even for some of the upperclassmen, they know each other,” Montross said. “They’ve watched each other on TV. … For the freshmen, there’s probably a very good chance that there’s a familiarity there because of their paths having crossed in high school or AAU or different all-star teams.
“I think that when I was in school, obviously that was a long time ago, but I was still very familiar with Chris Webber and Juwan Howard and Jalen Rose and Jimmy King and all those guys. You know and respect the players and … you’re enthused about playing them.”
The history of the two teams in March Madness is more of a driver for the fans than the players — no one on either roster was born in 1993. But it’s not just the history that contributes to the aura of the matchup.
“The expectations are that it’s a real heavyweight fight,” Montross said. “It’s two of the country’s best programs, two of the best public universities that are really peer institutions — they recruit the same kids, they’re both very well coached, they have high expectations. … We know it’s gonna be a raucous environment, and the fans are terrific. I think there’s a high expectation for the level of enthusiasm that there will be in that arena.”