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December 29, 2011

Heels return to action against Elon

After a week off for the Christmas Holiday, North Carolina returns to the court Thursday night with a home tilt against nearby Elon. Tipoff is at approximately 7:00 pm.

UNC can actually do something pretty impressive as a team on Thursday night, as a win would give the Tar Heels 25 consecutive wins in the Smith Center. Carolina hasn't dropped a game in the Dean Dome since a 77-67 loss to Florida State on February 24, 2010.

The last time Carolina won 25 straight games in the Smith Center was from the 1991-1992 season into the 1993-1994 season.

The 1993 NCAA champion Tar Heels didn't lose at home, and last year's UNC team was the first since the '93 team to also go undefeated in Chapel Hill.

Elon University is familiar to many UNC fans being in nearby Alamance County, but it's been over 60 years since the Phoenix, also known for many years as the "Fighting Christians," have taken on the Tar Heels on the hardwood.

UNC and Elon were significant rivals in the infancy of the game, as the schools played every year from 1912 through 1919. In those early years Elon and UNC often played two or even three times a year, with Elon last beating Carolina 28-21 on February 15, 1918.

The teams continued to play in the early 1920s until a nearly 10-year gap from 1926 to 1935. The schools picked up the series from 1947 through December 2, 1950 when UNC went over to Elon College and won a 57-48 final in the last game between the schools.

This year's Elon squad heads into Thursday's contest with a 7-4 mark and back-to-back road losses at Dartmouth and San Diego State, while UNC, ranked fifth in the AP poll and sixth in the ESPN/USA Today poll, are 11-2 with five straight triumphs since its last-second loss in Lexington to Kentucky earlier this month.

While UNC's 25 straight wins at home is certainly noteworthy, it's not the only streak currently running.

The Tar Heels haven't lost in the Smith Center to a non-conference opponent since Roy Williams' second season back in Chapel Hill, when a scrappy team led by David Noel and a rookie named Tyler Hansbrough lost a hard-fought 68-64 game to Illinois November 29, 2005 in a rematch of the previous spring's NCAA title game.

Although Elon likely will be the next school to add to Carolina's winning streaks at home, the Phoenix do have a few guys who can play, including sophomore Lucas Troutman, who is averaging over 12 points a game.

Troutman scored 22 points in Elon's recent contest with N.C. State, and he tallied 14 in Elon's win over South Carolina.

Elon has three other starters---senior guard Drew Spradlin, sophomore forward Sebastian Koch, and freshman point guard Austin Hamilton---averaging at least 9.7 points per game, so the Phoenix are able to put points on the board and they're able to do it with a bunch of different guys.

Hamilton was a nice pickup on the recruiting trail for Elon head coach Matt Matheny, as Hamilton averaged nearly 23.7 points per game at Herndon (Va.) High his senior season a year ago, earning All-State honors.

So far this season Hamilton is averaging 10.2 points and three assists per game, although he's had some growing pains as a collegiate point guard with 28 turnovers in 11 games---just over 2.5 per outing.

As a team Elon is shooting a respectable 35.9 percent from three-point range (92 of 256), which is one reason they're averaging slightly under 70 points per game.

Two starters---Koch and Spradlin---are shooting better than 42 percent from three-point land, so this could be a test for Carolina's perimeter defenders if the shots are falling.

Koch in particular has been hot of late, making 10 of his last 21 three-pointers over four games, so UNC will want to keep an eye on No. 24 in crimson.

Fortunately for UNC they should dominate the boards, as Elon is getting out-rebounded by nearly three rebounds per game this season against competition that largely doesn't approach that which the Tar Heels have faced so far.

Tyler Zeller in particular has been excellent on the boards of late, grabbing double-digit rebounds in UNC's last three outings. Before that Zeller had never had 10 or more rebounds in two straight games as a Tar Heels.

Although Appalachian State and Nicholls State aren't exactly juggernauts, Zeller should feel pretty good about getting 11 rebounds against Texas, and he should have a chance of approaching double-figure rebounds again on Thursday night if he comes to play.

UNC might also have a chance to get a lot of steals against an Elon team that is giving away 14.5 turnovers per game.

This statistic alone could help make Thursday night's game a blowout if the Tar Heels are active in the passing lanes and intense around midcourt when they go into the halfcourt press.

In addition, Kendall Marshall will have a good chance to keep up his outstanding pace distributing the ball around to his teammates.

Through his first 50 games as a Tar Heel, Marshall has 361 assists, more than any other UNC player in history. His 10.1 assists per game is tied for the national lead, and he's also in the top five nationally with a 4.09 assists-to-turnovers ratio.

Carolina figures to have a little rust tonight shooting the ball since they've had a considerable layover, but this year's team is doing substantially better in this key area.

Aided by the play of newcomer P.J. Hairston and a healthy, resurgent Reggie Bullock, the Tar Heels are shooting a healthy 39.3 percent from three-point range, which is 14th nationally and second in the Atlantic Coast Conference heading into Thursday night.

Bullock is making 42.6 percent of his three-pointers and Hairston 38 percent, but it's actually been Harrison Barnes at 48.6 percent from three-point land who is leading the team.

Carolina may not need a ton of three-pointers against an Elon team with only two players 6-8 or taller, but certainly it's an encouraging sign to see UNC shooting so well from long range given the struggles in that area in recent years combined with the absence so far this season of Leslie McDonald, last year's leading three-point shooter.

Thursday night is a good opportunity for UNC to knock some of the dust off and get back into game mode heading into ACC play, which begins January 7.

Stay tuned for full game coverage Thursday night from Tar Heel Illustrated.





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