UNCASVILLE, Conn. — During the next three weeks, North Carolina will play three teams that are ranked among the top four in the nation in the Associated Press top 25 poll. The first of those games, against No. 3 Louisville, comes on Sunday at the Mohegan Sun Arena at the Naismith Hall of Fame Tip-Off.
Technically, the teams are meeting in the “championship game” of the event – despite the Tar Heels’ loss against Belmont last week. Regardless, the game against Louisville represents North Carolina’s most difficult challenge of the season.
“They’re really, really good,” Tar Heels coach Roy Williams said after his team’s 82-72 victory against Richmond on Saturday. “So they present challenges for you in every area. They play extremely hard. They defend like crazy. They can score. They come at you. I mean, it’s a big-time team.”
Playing Louisville would have been difficult regardless of the circumstances, but the task is magnified given that North Carolina will be without P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald, who are sitting out amid NCAA eligibility concerns.
North Carolina hasn’t played Louisville since the NCAA tournament in 2008, when the Tar Heels’ 83-73 victory against the Cardinals in the East Regional championship game sent the Tar Heels to the Final Four.
“They’re fun to watch,” Williams said of the Cardinals, who in April won the national championship. “I don’t like to watch them when I’m playing against them. But they’re really a fun team to watch.”
Williams still hopeful of Hairston return: Williams expressed confidence before the season that Hairston, the junior guard, would play this season. Amid mounting speculation that Hairston might not play, Williams said he remains hopeful.
“I think I will,” Williams said, responding to a question about whether he believed he’d coach Hairston again. “There’s no doubt in my mind that I think I will. … It’s a very unfortunate thing for him. It’s a very unfortunate thing for our team, his teammates – our program.
“And you’re looking at a guy that was our leading scorer last year. … But North Carolina is going to play tomorrow regardless of if he’s out there. That’s what you’ve got to focus on.”
Both Hairston and McDonald have sat out North Carolina’s first four games. It’s unclear if, or when, both will return, or when their cases will be resolved.
Paige finds rhythm: Marcus Paige, the sophomore guard, made a career-high six 3-pointers. He made his final five 3-point attempts, and made 3s to give North Carolina a three-point lead with about eight minutes to play, a six-point lead with about 5 1/2 minutes to play and nine-point lead with about 2 1/2 minutes to play.
All six of the shots Paige made from the field came from behind the 3-point line.
“I found a little rhythm,” Paige said. “And I found my spots that were weak in the zone. So I kind of exploited that, and I was able to knock down a couple of big 3s when they had tightened the game up.”
ETC.: Paige and Brice Johnson are the only players to score in double figures in each of North Carolina’s first four games. … the Tar Heels forced 17 turnovers and scored a season-high 27 points off those turnovers. … Paige made all six of North Carolina’s 3-pointers on Saturday. … The Tar Heels shot 70.3 percent from the free throw line (26 of 37) after going 22 for 48 from the line against Belmont.
Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter