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UNC hits unexpected rough patch entering showdown at No. 1 Kentucky

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Roy Williams might be concerned after what he has seen from his Tar Heels the past two games. (US Presswire)  
Roy Williams might be concerned after what he has seen from his Tar Heels the past two games. (US Presswire)  

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- I asked Kendall Marshall if he has watched Kentucky play.

He said he's seen them "a couple of times."

I then asked for his thoughts.

"They're very talented," Marshall said. "They are the No. 1 team in the country."

That's true, by the way. Check your favorite poll. Kentucky is on top of it. But hearing a North Carolina player call another school the "No. 1 team in the country" is still kinda weird, no? I mean, this isn't where most thought we would be in early December. But Marshall's statement served as a reminder that college basketball's opening month didn't go quite as smoothly for the Tar Heels as most anticipated it would, and the truth is that Wednesday didn't go all that smoothly, either.

North Carolina beat No. 9 Wisconsin 60-57 here at the Dean Smith Center and avoided backing last weekend's shocking loss to UNLV with another defeat. But the Tar Heels weren't sharp or dominant or any of the things that usually define them, and Roy Williams acknowledged as much immediately after the victory.

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"Not the prettiest game at all," Williams said. "But sometimes you need to win like that."

Or just win, period.

That's the position in which the Tar Heels found themselves after the UNLV loss that cost them their perfect record and No. 1 ranking. They entered this Big Ten-ACC Challenge in desperate need of a win. Any kind of win. Because a loss would've represented their second successive loss, and who wants to be on a two-game losing streak as they prepare to play the nation's new No. 1 (Kentucky) at Rupp Arena?

Answer: Nobody.

So the stakes were high for this game, and not because it decided the Big Ten-ACC Challenge. It didn't and it was never going to, because the Big Ten clinched that title for the third consecutive year the moment Michigan State beat Florida State earlier Wednesday. No, these stakes were high for different reasons -- mostly because North Carolina couldn't afford to take another loss after last weekend's loss and heading into this weekend's showdown.

Again, that could've meant a three-game losing streak.

And that's just not a good look for a school that was preseason No. 1.

So you can understand why the announced crowd of 21,750 -- which included former UNC stars Rasheed Wallace and Tyler Hansbrough -- seemed on edge after North Carolina limped to a 25-24 halftime advantage. The Tar Heels might've been leading at that point, but Bo Ryan was winning. That's how it felt. Wisconsin was controlling the pace, controlling the clock and limiting North Carolina's transition opportunities. The Tar Heels seemed out of sorts and uncomfortable. Wisconsin seemed capable of an upset.

"Honestly, after the first half when we came in the locker room I said, " 'Strick [teammate Dexter Strickland], do we feel like we're on defense 80 percent of the time?' " Marshall said with a laugh. "It feels that way when you play against a team like that. But you just have to be mentally tough."

Which the Tar Heels were ... eventually. They got 14 second-half points from Harrison Barnes, opened a double-digit lead and held off the Badgers late to escape. Just like that, crisis avoided.

Everybody left satisfied, if not ecstatic, because now the table is set for Saturday's showdown in Lexington. It'll be Ol' Roy's pros against Coach Cal's pros before a sold out and rowdy crowd that'll almost certainly include scouts from every NBA franchise. Alas, it won't be the No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup of unbeaten powers it seemed like it would be when the game was announced this past offseason, but it'll still be the season's marquee game to date and a must-see event for college basketball fans.

North Carolina spent last Saturday losing the No. 1 ranking.

The byproduct is that the Tar Heels now have a chance to beat a No. 1.

"We're gonna go play a very good road game," Barnes said. "What a great [opportunity] -- to play at Rupp Arena."


Gary Parrish is a senior college basketball columnist for CBSSports.com and frequent contributor to the CBS Sports Network. The Mississippi native also hosts the highest-rated sports talk radio show -- The Gary Parrish Show -- in the history of Memphis. He lives in that area with his wife, two children and a dog.
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