The fact that North Carolina’s last two victories against lesser opponents came by an average of 29.5 points doesn’t seem particularly eyecatching.
What is notable is that those same foes played two highly competitive games against the Tar Heels’ next opponent, winning one of them.
That’s a major reason why the nation’s top-ranked team will be heavily favored to beat South Carolina on Friday night in the Las Vegas Invitational semifinals at Orleans Arena.
North Carolina (4-0) beat Mississippi Valley State 101-75 on Sunday and Tennessee State 102-69 on Tuesday as part of this tournament, although those results did not affect which four teams would advance to play for the title.
That’s good news for South Carolina (2-2), which lost 64-63 to Tennessee State on Sunday and defeated Mississippi Valley State 61-57 two days later.
The Gamecocks don’t seem daunted by the challenge they face.
“I think the opportunity to play North Carolina is good,” South Carolina coach Darrin Horn said. “It’s just that, it’s an opportunity. They’re a good basketball team, it’ll be great stage. It will be one we don’t have to worry about our guys getting up for.”
The contrast in offenses with these teams couldn’t be any more different. North Carolina leads the nation with 22.3 assists per game while South Carolina ranks last in the SEC with 10.5.
The Tar Heels assisted on 32 of 41 baskets Tuesday for their highest total under coach Roy Williams. Kendall Marshall had 15 assists for the third time in his career - no other North Carolina player has had more than one game with at least that many.
That didn’t stop Williams from criticizing his team for allowing Tennessee State to shoot 44.7 percent in the first half.
“I chewed their rear ends out because I didn’t think we were very good guarding the ball in the first half,” Williams said. “It’s pretty simple. If you’re not going to deny the pass, that means that you’re off the guy. So if you’re off the guy, he shouldn’t drive you straight to the dadgum basket.”
The Tar Heels made 11 of 18 3-pointers after shooting 28.9 percent from beyond the arc in their first three games. Reggie Bullock converted 6 of 7 attempts after missing 8 of 12 to start the season.
“It’s a big relief because I’ve been thinking about my shot so much,” Bullock said. “I just need to make shots, that’s what I’m here for.”
The Gamecocks, meanwhile, are the second-worst 3-point shooting team in the SEC at 25.3 percent.
Their top scorer is Malik Cooke, a Charlotte native who grew up rooting for the Tar Heels but is confident that his team can pull the upset.
“I think we can win,” Cooke said. “I know we can win. We got the talent, we got the skill and we’re going to be ready to play.”
These teams have not met since 1996-97, with North Carolina holding a 57-21 edge in the series. The schools were former rivals from the ACC and the Southern Conference.