North Carolina will get another stern test to see if recent success has translated to widespread improvement when it faces No. 4 UCLA on Saturday afternoon at Las Vegas.
“A top three or four team would be a huge win for us,” North Carolina forward Armando Bacot said. “I feel like we can put just everyone on notice.”
North Carolina (8-2) has won five games in a row while not allowing any of the opponents in that span reach the 64-point mark.
There is some concern about the status of the game after UCLA (8-1) had a scheduled home game Wednesday night against Alabama State called off because of COVID-19 protocols.
The North Carolina-UCLA game is part of the CBS Sports Classic, with the second game of that doubleheader between Kentucky and Ohio State already canceled because of COVID concerns within the Buckeyes’ program.
UCLA has played just one game since Dec. 1, winning 67-56 on Sunday at Marquette. The Bruins had a Pac-12 Conference game against Washington scrapped because of Washington’s COVID-19 issues (the Bruins were credited with a Pac-12 victory).
The Marquette game almost didn’t happen because of UCLA’s flight issues in getting to Milwaukee.
“We had been off so long, I just figured we might as well (play even with the unusual circumstances),” coach Mick Cronin said.
Prior to Wednesday night’s game with Alabama State being nixed, UCLA had announced Cronin would miss that game because of COVID-19 protocols.
So if there’s another unusual lead-up to the game with North Carolina, at least the Bruins learned how to adjust just last weekend.
“It just felt really good that we just did all of that and get the win,” swingman Jaime Jaquez Jr. said of the travel ordeal prior to facing Marquette.
This has been North Carolina’s best stretch of games defensively in 11 years.
“We have kind of been finding ourselves as a team and defining our roles,” Bacot said. “I would just say we need to keep getting better. We can be even better on defense and tidying up our offense. I feel like our offense hasn’t been as good as it was starting off the season, but now our defense is better.”
UCLA scored more than 85 points in each of its first four games.
North Carolina’s Dawson Garcia has reached the 20-point mark the past two games and three times this season overall.
“One of the things that we’ve talked about in the last week or so is just trying to establish him offensively early,” coach Hubert Davis said.
Garcia is a transfer from Marquette, so he’s continuing to adjust to his new teammates. His 12.2 points per game rate fifth on the team.
“Scoring is going to come and go, everything really is going to come and go besides just playing hard, rebounding, and just doing all of those things,” Garcia said.
Caleb Love is North Carolina’s leading scorer at 16.2 points per game, with Bacot next at 14.3. Both players had double-doubles in Tuesday night’s 74-61 victory against visiting Furman, marking the first time this season that two Tar Heels achieved that in the same game.
North Carolina made a season-low five 3-points shots Tuesday night.
The Tar Heels are 0-2 in neutral-site games, falling to nationally ranked foes Purdue and Tennessee last month. UCLA will be the fourth ranked opponent for North Carolina, which won against Michigan 72-51 on Dec. 1.
The teams last met in 2019, with North Carolina halting a four-game losing streak with a 74-64 victory behind Bacot’s 15 points and 12 rebounds in Las Vegas.
–Field Level Media