EAST LANSING — There might not be a more recognizable basketball program than the North Carolina Tar Heels’. As a matter of fact, there might not be a more celebrated college sports program, period.
The University of North Carolina has the credentials, they’ve bred legends, and their ability to stay relevant — even despite having up-and-down seasons over the past decade — is what separates them from the rest of college basketball’s elite.
However, not only has that prestigious status earned UNC a spot on college hoops’ Mount Rushmore, but it’s earned the respect of opponents all across the nation; even when they’re not playing to North Carolina standards.
The Tar Heels (4-2) have gotten off to a slow start this year — with losses to Belmont and the University of Alabama–Birmingham (UAB) — and they could be looking at their third loss in five games when they head to the Breslin Center to face the first-ranked Michigan State Spartans (7-0) in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge on Wednesday. And despite their struggles this season, the Spartans aren’t looking past the Tar Heels because, well, they’re the next opponent, and because they’re Tar Heels.
“We look forward to every game, no matter who it is,” Michigan State point guard Travis Trice said. “Any time you got a good team like that, and a storied program coming in here, there’s extra excitement for that game. We want to approach every game like it’s the same.”
But while preparation for any team, no matter the level of competition, is viewed equally at this point in the season, the big-name showdown adds a little more meaning.
“That’s North Carolina,” Michigan State sophomore guard Gary Harris said. “You saw what happened last time they lost to an unranked team, they came out and beat Louisville.
“They definitely have potential. They have players just like we have players. They’re going to come in ready to play, especially with the No.1 ranking, it gives teams an extra chip on their shoulder. They’re going to definitely want to come on our home court and beat us.”
Two big-time programs playing on a non-neutral court is something that’s becoming extinct in today’s game, and Harris can’t help but realize that despite his team being the best in the nation, they will be hosting the icon that is North Carolina.
“It’s kind of hard to say it’s not,” Harris said in regards to thinking about playing such an iconic team. “We’re playing North Carolina. Their tradition speaks for itself. For them to come here, and to have an opportunity to play against such a tradition, it’s a great opportunity. We’re all competitors, and we love to go out there and compete. We have enough pride that we want to get the win on our home court and keep it moving.”
Fortunately for the Spartans, Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo is “99 percent sure” that Harris — who missed the Spartans’ victory over Mount St. Mary’s with a nagging ankle injury, and practiced live for the first time in several days on Monday — will play on Wednesday. And any time the best team in the nation has its best player at its disposal for a game of this magnitude, that has to settle some nerves.
“Gary Harris, I mean we have a lot of good players right now, but where he is different than all those other ones is he’s a game-changer on both ends, maybe all three spots,” Izzo said. “He can score on one end, he can defend on the other, and the in between is, he can run the floor in transition offense and transition defense.
“He’s probably are most, all around, important guy because of the impact he can have on both ends of the floor. I think that’s what’s so important about getting him back, not just getting him back, but getting him back to where he can do those things.”
Harris has been trying to practice, and could have played vs. Mount St. Mary’s if needed, but Izzo has taken precaution to make sure his sophomore guard is back to where he needs to be. And while it won’t be known how healthy Harris actually is until the game begins, there was no way he was missing Wednesday’s matchup.
“It’s kind of hard to say ‘no’ to playing against North Carolina, at home, in the Breslin,” Harris said.