Opportunity knocks for No. 20 Tennessee vs. No. 7 North Carolina
Sports Xchange - Sunday 17th December, 2017
Tennessee has a chance to further emerge on the national stage when the No. 20 Volunteers play host to No. 7 North Carolina on Sunday afternoon.
But for Tennessee coach Rick Barnes, there's more emphasis on making improvements that will bode well for the remainder of the season.
"Your goal has to stay the same," Barnes said. "I'm not worried about showing well. I'm worried about getting better."
The teams meet for the second year in a row, this time at sold-out Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville, Tenn.
It's a chance for North Carolina (9-1) to build on its recent success as players continue to blend into bigger roles. The Tar Heels suit up for the first time in 11 days following a break for exams.
The Volunteers (7-1) often do well in such settings. Since 1999, Tennessee has won five consecutive home games against teams that are reigning national champions.
"We knew we had a schedule at the beginning of the year that would give us opportunities," Barnes said. "We want to be a program that's big on everybody's schedule. We're not there yet. We're working to get there."
This marks the first time since Feb. 27, 2010, that two nationally ranked men's teams meet at Thompson-Boling Arena. Until this month, the Volunteers hadn't been ranked since December 2010.
The Tar Heels are 4-7 under coach Roy Williams in nonconference road games against top 20 teams.
Barnes, who holds a 6-11 record against North Carolina (counting his time as coach at Clemson and Texas), said the Tar Heels will arrive with a familiar mindset.
"If you don't get back, they make you pay," he said. "Even though they're a little younger than they were a year ago, to me they still look like a Roy Williams-coached basketball team."
One intriguing matchup could involve a pair of players from the Charlotte, N.C., area.
North Carolina has junior forward Luke Maye, who has emerged as one of the top players in the country this season by averaging 19.9 points per game. Tennessee has 6-foot-7 sophomore forward Grant Williams, who is scoring a team-leading 16.1 points per game.
North Carolina has averaged 93 points per game during its four-game winning streak. More players have started to make significant contributions, including backup freshman guard Jalek Felton.
"I think I am starting to pick up on things a little bit faster now," Felton said. "Starting to see a little progression and getting my confidence back to where I like it."
North Carolina made a school-record 72.7 percent of its 3-point attempts (16 of 22) in its last outing, a romp past Western Carolina.
"I think having that 3-ball will be something good for us when we get the ball inside (and can push it back out)," North Carolina guard Joel Berry II said.
North Carolina leads the series 9-1, though the Tar Heels had to pull out a 73-71 home victory last December, overcoming a 15-point deficit. Berry, the eventual Most Outstanding Player in the Final Four, didn't play against Tennessee last year because of an ankle injury.
"What I hope they remember is that we didn't win," Barnes said of his players.
North Carolina is the third of four Atlantic Coast Conference teams that the Volunteers will face during a 30-day span. They have already defeated North Carolina State and Georgia Tech, while they visit Wake Forest next weekend.
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