LONG BEACH--The last two times Roy Williams has taken his Tar Heels on a west coast swing that included a stop in Maui, it felt more like a coronation than a challenge. Carolina has been a consensus top-five team in its previous two trips--November of 2004 and November of 2008--and most of the drama involved proving just how good the Tar Heels might be in that particular season.
This year, the scenario is different. Carolina is 2-0 and ranked eleventh in the country, but the season-opening victories didn't answer many of the preseason questions about the Tar Heels. Carolina will be one of the favorites in Maui, most certainly, but they are not the only favorite. Opening round opponent Mississippi State dropped its opener at Troy but defeated Florida Atlantic, 78-58. Hard-nosed Marquette or Butler could be a formidable challenge in the second game, and Texas looms as a potential opponent in the event's third game. The Longhorns are waiting to hear from the NCAA about the status of Myck Kabongo, who has been permitted to travel to Maui with the team.
Despite the impressive records in past trips--each has included a one-game stop in California, and Carolina is a combined 7-1, with the only defeat coming at Santa Clara without the services of starting point guard Raymond Felton--they've both been illustrative of the benefits of such an early-season journey. Here's a look at what to watch for during the upcoming week, and some possible key storylines. Carolina plays Long Beach State tonight at 11 p.m. Eastern before traveling to Maui tomorrow.
Hostile environments: The "neutral" site game against Santa Clara in 2004 was fairly sterile, but I remain convinced that the crowd at the Thunderdome in 2008 for the UC-Santa Barbara game is one of the best road environments in which the Tar Heels have ever played in the Williams era. Carolina handled it well, partially because they were starting three juniors and two seniors, all of whom had already been through the ACC twice.
This year's team appears to be facing a similar challenge at Long Beach on Friday, where the program has been selling the Carolina game as the centerpiece of the season ticket package since the spring. As of this morning, the program's official website listed just 376 tickets remaining. East Coast teams simply don't make on-campus visits to mid-majors like Long Beach very often--the last team from East of the Mississippi to play at the Walter Pyramid was Temple in 2008, and no Atlantic Coast Conference team has ever played there.
That means it's likely to be a raucous first few minutes on Friday night. Carolina has some veterans who have been in that environment before, but it will be the first true test for point guard Marcus Paige, who has looked remarkably even-keeled through two home games.
By the way, don't overlook the tough environments in Maui, either. Because of the tiny gym and the fact that people who travel thousands of miles are likely to be hearty supporters, those games can also get rowdy. Based on ticket sales, it looks like Carolina will have the most fans there, but Marquette and Illinois also appear to be traveling well. Texas has a home football game on Nov. 22 against TCU, which is likely to limit the amount of burnt orange in the stands.
Health concerns: Tyler Hansbrough was battling shin splints in 2008, and after playing in the game at UC-Santa Barbara, he did not play in the Maui opener against Chaminade. Four games in six days is a significant load for any player who isn't completely healthy, so it will be interesting to see how the Tar Heels use Dexter Strickland, who tore his ACL less than 11 months ago. Through two games, Strickland's 24 minutes per game rank second on the team.
Handling adversity: Put the above two scenarios together, and it's extremely likely that at some point over the next week, the Tar Heels are going to face a situation when an opponent goes on a run, and they have to figure out how to stop it. Roy Williams is fond of letting his team work itself out of a jam. As he told the 2006 club early in the season, "I'm not going to call a timeout if you get us in trouble. If you get us in trouble, you get us out of it."
With the substitution pattern still in flux, it's just as possible that you might see a five-for-five substitution to allow the head coach to provide some in-game instruction as it is that you'll see a series of first-half timeouts.