Basketball Preview: Ohio State Heads to New York City to Take on North Carolina in CBS Sports Classic Matchup at Madison Square Garden

This isn’t exactly the matchup most assumed it would be before the season.


North Carolina (7-4)

Madison Square Garden

3 p.m


Fresh off a run to the national championship game in the NCAA Tournament last spring, North Carolina started the year as the preseason No. 1 team in the nation. Ohio State, on the other hand, began 2022-23 unranked with relatively undefined expectations for its performance.

Six weeks later, the Buckeyes are the team with a number next to its name while the Tar Heels enter Saturday’s CBS Sports Classic contest on the heels of four losses in their past six games, freefalling out of the AP Top 25 in the process.

Each side’s results suggest the 3 pm tip-off at Madison Square Garden in New York City could be a closer affair than most might have anticipated a month ago. But while the Tar Heels are off to a slower start than they had a year ago, let’s not forget they took double-digit losses in 2021-22 and still wound up just four points shy of a national championship last season.

Chris Holtmann believes the current team may be able to replicate such a run if they put it all together at the right time.

“They’ve got another team that can get to a Final Four,” Holtmann said Monday. “There’s no question.”

KenPom ranks North Carolina 22nd overall with the No. 9 offense in the nation in terms of adjusted efficiency margin. Two of the Tar Heels’ losses came to top-20 teams in the country (Alabama and Indiana) and the other two were single-digit defeats to Iowa State and Virginia Tech. The latter contest saw North Carolina take the court without one of its best players, senior forward Armando Bacot, who was out with a shoulder injury. Since then, though, Hubert Davis and company have bounced back to beat Georgia Tech and The Citadel in blowout fashion.

Coming off a buzzer-beating win over Rutgers in its Big Ten opener on Dec. 8, Ohio State seeks a second straight win over North Carolina after blowing out the Tar Heels, 74-49, in Chapel Hill three seasons ago.

What to Watch For


Returning Tar Heel talent

If you needed justification for North Carolina’s preseason No. 1 status, look no further: The Tar Heels returned 73.3% of their minutes played and 71.2% of their scoring production from last year’s roster. Compare that with percentages of just 16.2 and 14.1 for Ohio State in the same categories.

North Carolina got four of its five starters back from last year’s run to the national championship game, and four of its top-five scorers. Three of the Tar Heels’ top-five players are seniors this season, and the other two are juniors. North Carolina has experience in spades, and 11 players on the roster are top-100 recruits.

Best backcourt in the nation

North Carolina’s guard play has been a point of particular emphasis for Holtmann, who says the Tar Heel backcourt is “maybe the best in the country.” Starting guards Caleb Love and RJ Davis, who each had 30-point performances during last season’s NCAA Tournament run, are averaging a combined 33.2 points per game for North Carolina this season. That figure represents 41% of North Carolina’s total scoring average of 80.9.

Familiar foe from the Big Ten

One fresh face for North Carolina this season is a player Ohio State already has plenty of experience matching up with over the last four seasons. Northwestern transfer forward Pete Nance is putting up 13 points per game and 6.4 rebounds and has started all 11 games for the Tar Heels. A stretch power forward at 6-foot-11, Nance is North Carolina’s best 3-point shooter, knocking down 40% of his attempts thus far.

In his last outing against the Buckeyes a season ago, Nance gave Ohio State fits with a 20-point performance on 7-for-12 shooting.

“He’s just a really good player. He’s a mismatch at 6-10,” Holtmann said. “Can shoot threes, can drive it. Really skilled, can score in the long post, great length. It’s a great pickup for them, because he’s a really good player.”

Three Important Buckeyes

Zed Key

Returning to his home state this weekend, the Bay Shore, New York, native can continue the recent roll that’s made him both Ohio State’s leading scorer (14.3 points per game) and rebounder (8.7 rebounds). Key’s scored 20 or more points in two of the past three games, and he set a new career-high with 22 last time out against Rutgers. Key’s averaging 18 points per game on 80.8% shooting in that stretch, and has only missed three of his 23 2-point shot attempts.

Brice Sensabaugh

Assuming Isaac Likekele is out again for Ohio State as he tends to family matters in Texas, the freshman wing should make his second straight start for the Buckeyes. In 31 minutes against Rutgers, his heaviest workload of the season, Sensabaugh scored 13 points on 5-of-11 shooting, including 3-for-4 from 3-point range. But the last time Ohio State played a blue-chip program, Sensabaugh had his worst game of the season against Duke, finishing with more fouls (five) than points (four) in just 14 minutes of action.

Tanner Holden

The hero of Ohio State’s one-point win over Rutgers, a game-winning buzzer-beater may have been exactly what Holden needed to truly get going in his first year in Columbus. After putting up 12 points in the season opener, the Wright State transfer has only averaged 3.9 points over the next eight contests. Even after his last-second heave against the Scarlet Knights, Holden only finished with three points on Dec. 8. But that shot could be a launching point for Holden’s confidence on offense, and the Buckeyes could certainly use it against last year’s national runner-up.

Three Important Tar Heels

Caleb Love






Season Stats





18.0 PPG, 3.4 APG





15.2 PPG, 5.2 RPG





6.3 PPG, 5.6 RPG





13.0 PPG, 6.4 RPG





16.4 PPG, 11.3 RPG

North Carolina’s leading scorer is averaging a career-high 18 points per game as Love is enjoying his most efficient season to date for the Tar Heels. The five-star 2020 recruit is shooting a career-best 41.8% from the field, and his 51.5% clip from 2-point range is nearly 14% better than what he averaged a year ago. The 6-foot-4 guard is only shooting 28.8% from distance, but that hasn’t stopped him from putting up 20 points on four separate occasions this season, including a 34-point outburst against Alabama. Love also leads the Tar Heels with an average of 3.4 assists per game.

RJ Davis

Another top-50 guard from the 2020 class, Davis is pouring in 15.2 points per game as North Carolina’s third-leading scorer so far this season. The only Tar Heel averaging more shot attempts per game than Love, Davis is knocking down 42% of his field goals and 29.2% of his 3-point attempts. Despite standing 6-foot even, Davis is also one of the most productive rebounders on the roster with an average of 5.2 per game – fourth-most among Tar Heels this season.

Armando Bacot

One of two Tar Heels (along with Love) to make the Final Four all-tournament team last spring, Bacot has been every bit as productive as a senior as he was in 2021-22. The 6-foot-11 forward is averaging 16.4 points (No. 2 for UNC) and a team-leading 11.3 rebounds per game. In fact, Bacot is pulling down nearly five more rebounds a night than any of his teammates. Despite missing the Virginia Tech game after suffering a shoulder injury against Indiana on Nov. 30, Bacot has bounced back to play in both of the Tar Heels’ most recent wins against Georgia Tech and The Citadel.

“Size and physicality, I think that’s the biggest thing,” Holtmann said. “Can score in the low post. He’s just a tremendously talented player.”

How it Plays Out

Line: North Carolina -1, O/U: 151.5

At its best, North Carolina should be able to edge Ohio State, given its talent and experience. But in light of their recent results, it looks as though the Tar Heels may need more time to gather their form from last year’s impressive run in the NCAA Tournament. The Buckeyes have hung with every opponent they’ve faced so far, and I won’t be surprised if they make a few extra plays late to squeak out a win under the lights at MSG.

Prediction: Ohio State 73, North Carolina 72

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