North Carolina’s second game of the season will tip off tonight at 8 against the Bucknell Bison (0-2) of the Patriot League. The Tar Heels (1-0) won their season opener 86-69 against Northern Iowa Friday.
About the Bison
Coming off a 26-9 season that ended with a six-point loss to West Virginia in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, Bucknell was selected by league coaches this offseason as the favorite to repeat as Patriot League champions. The Bison return all five starters, including Patriot League Preseason Player of the Year Nana Foulland, from a squad that earned a No. 13 seed in the Big Dance.
Bucknell hasn’t matched the preseason hype thus far, though. The Bison are 0-2 after a one-point loss to Monmouth and a blowout defeat at the hands of Arkansas. North Carolina is likely the only ranked team Bucknell will face in the regular season, so the Bison will look to pick up a win that would significantly booster its slim at-large hopes come Selection Sunday.
Players to Watch
Bucknell’s frontcourt will provide a good early-season test for the Tar Heels. Foulland, a 6-10 senior forward, was joined by frontcourt partner and fellow senior Zach Thomas on the All-Patriot League preseason team.
Foulland averaged 15.0 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game last season en route to being named player of the year in the conference. Thomas averaged 15.9 points, 6.6 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game while composing the other half of Bucknell’s formidable frontcourt.
In the backcourt, the Bison will start defensive specialist Stephen Brown (11.1 ppg, 4.8 apg) and junior guard Kimbal Mackenzie (11.9 ppg, 2.4 apg). Sophomore guard Avi Toomer will likely be the other starter in the backcourt.
Bucknell is coached by Nathan Davis, who has been named Patriot League Coach of the Year in both of his seasons with the team.
Can the Tar Heels avoid an upset?
The first, and most relevant, question concerns the outcome of the game. Bucknell has proven it isn’t fazed by the big stage and has the talent to compete with top-notch programs, as its close loss to West Virginia last season showed.
While the Tar Heels looked sharp in their season-opener against Northern Iowa, Bucknell presents much stiffer competition. UNC’s frontcourt, which is composed of Luke Maye and a crew of freshmen, is still jelling and will be pushed by Foulland and Thomas. A big factor will be the status of North Carolina’s injured players, which is the next storyline…
Will Berry II be able to play?
Part of the reason Friday’s beat down of UNI was so impressive was the fact that the Tar Heels were missing their likely top two scorers on the season, senior stud Joel Berry II and Pitt transfer Cameron Johnson.
Johnson, who was held out of the opener due to a neck injury sustained in practice, will miss extended time after injuring his left knee in practice Monday. The wing will undergo surgery today to repair a torn meniscus. He is out indefinitely.
Berry broke a bone in his hand in anger following a video game loss. His injury is much less serious. Either way, North Carolina will be significantly better when both are healthy.
There is hope that Berry will play tonight after Theo Pinson, Berry’s roommate and fellow senior, posted an Instagram photo of himself and Berry captioned “Welcome back 2!!” Berry would provide an instant boost to the offense with his three-point shooting and driving ability.
What will Maye do for his encore?
Junior forward Luke Maye, who knocked down the shot of the tournament against Kentucky in the Elite Eight last spring, dropped a career-high 26 points while grabbing ten rebounds in only his second career start against UNI. The Huntersville native was named co-ACC Player of the Week for his efforts along with Duke’s Marvin Bagley.
As an undersized forward, Maye should be able to get his three-point shot going while being guarded by Foulland, a traditional center. His ability to stretch the floor will be key in getting the 2017 Patriot League Defender of the Year away from the basket.
On defense, North Carolina needs Maye to be tough down low in order to limit Bucknell’s high-scoring forward duo from doing too much damage in the paint. If Maye and fellow frontcourt starter Garrison Brooks, who scored 14 on an efficient 5-6 shooting in the opener, can control the paint, this one will be a blowout.
Bucknell will be a significant increase in talent from UNI, but the Tar Heels will have too much firepower for the Bison, with or without Johnson and Berry II. Expect Maye to continue his hot start to the season and senior Theo Pinson to rebound from his poor performance in the opener. UNC will win, 85-66.