But this year features two different teams. For one, last year's Texas team entered the game as the more experienced of the two squads. This year, that onus falls on North Carolina, which returned just about every key player from a team that hit its stride late a year ago, and added several key pieces.
But none of the key pieces have been able to crack a solid starting lineup that includes four Wooden and Naismith Award candidates.
Most of the focus revolves around Harrison Barnes, one of the top recruits in the country a couple years ago. He averages 16.1 points per game and is shooting 48.5 percent from three-point range. But he's the only North Carolina starter who is strong from behind the arc, as the second-best three-point shooter in the top five is Kendall Marshall — shooting 26.1 percent — and the other three starters are a combined 0-for-1 from deep. Barnes occasionally is hounded for a perceived lack of effort, but at times, that's unfair. He's like many gifted athletes who occasionally appear to be loafing it when in actuality, the game is just coming easily to him.
Barnes actually plays the third-most minutes on the team. First is Marshall, undoubtedly the straw that stirs the North Carolina drink. The talented point guard doesn't score much — he's a poor shooter and averages 5.2 points per game — but he sets up the other Tar Heels to score. Only one other Tar Heel averages two or more assists per game, and Marshall dishes out 10.2 assists per game. If there's a weakness there (besides his shooting ability), it's that Marshall, a bigger point guard, isn't necessarily the best athlete on the floor.
While that's an area the Longhorn quickness could potentially exploit, a bigger mismatch exists in Carolina's favor. The Longhorns are somewhat undersized in the post, and few teams have the length and height that Carolina does in seven-footer Tyler Zeller and 6-10 forward John Henson. The latter player is averaging 14.5 points, 10.3 rebounds and 3.4 blocks per game. Zeller is averaging 14.5 points and 8.2 boards per game, though he isn't the shot-blocker that the athletic Henson is.
Dexter Strickland is the team's defensive stopper, a player who doesn't really fill up a stat sheet, but who has developed the talent to hold opposing stars well under their potential.
North Carolina has some punch off the bench, including the team's fourth-leading scorer and second-best three-point shooter in Reggie Bullock, another potential gunner in P.J. Hairston and another post player in James M. McAdoo. The Tar Heels will get even deeper when Leslie McDonald comes back from injury.
Wednesday marks the seventh time the two teams have played, with Texas winning the last four contests — including games each of the last two years — to hold a 4-2 series lead. Taking this one would be a pretty major upset, with the Tar Heels currently ranking as a double-digit favorite. Both teams have two losses, though the North Carolina defeats — at UNLV and a one-point decision at Kentucky — are significantly more impressive than the Texas ones — N.C. State and Oregon State. And the Longhorns don't have any wins as impressive as Michigan State, Wisconsin or Long Beach State.
Still, Texas does have a bit of an advantage in that all the pressure will be on North Carolina. With the Longhorns beating Temple this past weekend, this isn't a must-win game for Texas. But with the collective physical talent on both teams, and with the Texas freshmen starting to hit their stride, there's the potential for a good game here.