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Submitted by Jim Hurley on Friday, December 16, 2016 at 12:40 PM

North Carolina will be in the college basketball spotlight early Saturday evening when they play Kentucky in a neutral-site game in Las Vegas (5:45 PM ET, CBS). The Tar Heels came within a basket of a national championship last season and even though dynamic point guard Marcus Paige is gone, there’s plenty of talent left on hand for Roy Williams to make another run at the brass ring.

UNC has something we don’t always see from nationally elite programs anymore and it’s an experienced lineup, stocked with upperclassmen. Across the frontline, Justin Jackson is a junior while Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks are both seniors. This might not speak well of their chances for going high in the NBA draft, but it could be a critical edge come NCAA Tournament time.

What has to be said though, is that North Carolina has not looked the part of a championship-ready team so far this college basketball season. They’ve played three notable games and only one of them was impressive. Their 71-56 win over Wisconsin in Maui was an excellent all-around performance. The Heels held an efficient Badger offense to 38 percent shooting, forcing Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes into awful games. UNC won the rebounding battle decisively against a team with a good center in Ethan Happ. North Carolina rose to third in the national polls after that game.

The next time out at Indiana didn’t fare quite as well. The Tar Heels allowed the Hoosiers to shoot 48 percent from the floor and they narrowly lost the rebounding war. A home game on Sunday with Tennessee became notable for the wrong reasons—it’s not the Vols are particularly noteworthy, even if Rick Barnes is coaching there now. They’re 6-4 on the season, but they nearly sprung the upset, shooting over 51 percent and holding their own on the glass.

Pollsters have taken notice and nudged Carolina down to #6, but the betting market is unmoved—North Carolina’s 7-1 price to win the national championship is still third-best in the country.

The fact there’s little reaction from the market is indicative of an appropriate caution regarding drawing sweeping conclusions on November-December games, particularly from a program and head coach with as long a track record as this one. But these hiccups are still red flags and after Saturday, North Carolina will be under the radar for a while. The next games that really measure their championship readiness won’t come until early February, when they play Notre Dame and Duke in succession.

North Carolina has a lot going for it—this is a deep lineup that doesn’t ask too much of any one player and there’s no obvious weakness. They’re exceptionally well-coached. But we want to see some better defense on Saturday in a high-profile game before thinking of these Tar Heels as a national championship favorite.  

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