CBS Sports Classic: 3 takeaways as North Carolina makes it look easy vs. Ohio State

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Highlights: No. 5 North Carolina back on track with win over Ohio State

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Could Wofford already be a distant memory?

Fifth-ranked UNC walked into Saturday’s CBS Sports Classic showdown with Ohio State as a team recently, and badly, wounded. The Tar Heels’ game against the Buckeyes offered an interesting matchup because UNC was coming off that bizarre, historic home loss to Wofford on Wednesday. That outcome marked the first time in Wofford program history that the Terriers had defeated a ranked team.

How would UNC respond? Turns out, very well.

"Much greater intensity level, much greater focus today," Tar Heels coach Roy Williams told CBS Sports’ Allie LaForce after North Carolina’s 86-72 win over Chris Holtmann’s Buckeyes. The win gets the Heels to 11-2 and ensures they won’t plummet in the polls come Monday. Ohio State, a program in transition in its first season under Holtmann, falls to 10-4 and sees its winning streak stalled at five.

This was the 3,000th game in Carolina program history. The Tar Heels have won 2,217 (or 74 percent) of those games, which date back 108 seasons. But let’s zero in on what we saw materialize in New Orleans on Saturday.

Three takeaways

1. For UNC, going 11-2 in non-conference play is a best-case scenario

Saturday’s game was the last out-of-league contest this regular season for UNC. Considering that the reigning national champs lost Justin Jackson, Kennedy Meeks, Isiah Hicks, Tony Bradley and Nate Britt but still managed to win 11 of 13 to begin the season? That’s good. No matter the program’s standing in college hoops, when you lose seniors and NBA Draft picks and can start 11-2 to start the next season, you’re in relatively good shape.

Also worth considering that UNC has played a top-40 strength of schedule to this point, too. When I sat down with Roy Williams in Portland last month, he noted that his team’s ability to jell was coming faster than he expected. Luke Maye’s been a little inconsistent and only scored nine points on Saturday, but he’s averaging 19 this season) but overall he’s been better than anticipated. And remember, this team only just got Cam Johnson healthy. If Johnson rounds into form, the form he showed while standing out at Pitt last season, then UNC will be a threat to Duke and Miami to win the ACC.

2. Jalek Felton could be the X-factor in March for UNC

UNC got 19 points Saturday from its two biggest names, Theo Pinson and Joel Berry II, but what Jalek Felton is showing is potentially as vital to UNC’s NCAA Tournament chances as anything Pinson and Berry can do. Felton’s a 6-foot-3 freshman guard who’s now starting to show the kind of depth Williams’ teams thrive off of. He put up 12 points on four 3-pointers and displayed why he can be one of the toughest reserve matchups in college basketball.

Because Felton isn’t seeing a ton of minutes, he comes in as a spark-plug guy and isn’t the easiest player to scout for. But he can burn teams, and Saturday was the best example of that yet. To see how he stepped up when Maye had an off day, it’s a valuable asset.

3. Ohio State is going to need an unthinkably good Big Ten campaign in order to have a shot at the NCAAs

This isn’t breaking news, but it is worth circling back around to the Buckeyes and taking stock of what the program did in the non-conference in Holtmann’s first season. There still is one non-conference game remaining, next Saturday at home vs. Miami-Ohio, and with a victory there Ohio State’s non-conference record will be 9-4. Remember, all Big Ten teams have already played two games at this point in the schedule. (Here’s why.) A 9-4 non-conference record is something I think most OSU fans would’ve taken.

But, fans tend to get ahead of themselves when their teams play beyond expectation. For Holtmann, this is a year of development with the entire program and his own coaching philosophy. He and his staff, as they told me recently, are figuring out how to win with Ohio State’s unconventional personnel. The backcourt is thin, and that’s not something Holtmann’s ever dealt with in his career.

Fortunately, Keita Bates-Diop is set on making his junior season a memorable one, personally. He led the Buckeyes with 26 points vs. UNC. It would not surprise me to see Bates-Diop play himself into the 25-40 range of the NBA Draft and make his move to the pros in the spring. He looked very good against a long, if a bit raw, UNC front line. He probably could have flirted with 30 points if he wasn’t hindered by foul trouble — but playing with foul trouble is a part of the game.

Ohio State’s got a good coach in Holtmann, but this is not a particularly strong team. It will be a spoiler in the Big Ten, though. That seems inevitable. The league isn’t top-tier this season, and most teams are going to get tripped up vs. inferior opponents on a weekly basis.

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