There are a lot of tournaments and multi-team events in the college basketball season, and most of them are a fun way to create matchups between high-profile teams. The newly created Jumpman Invitational is just that, bringing together four teams who rep the iconic logo and command attention on the national level.
Unfortunately, much of the glimmer of the event has been scuffed already. Florida and Oklahoma are currently on the wrong side of way-too-early bracket projections, while both the Michigan Wolverines and North Carolina Tar Heels have had early seasons to forget, especially with the latter slipping from No. 1 in the country to unranked after four-straight losses.
These two powers have met quite frequently as of late. The teams split a home-and-home with double-digit wins in 2017 and 2018 before Michigan won the Battle 4 Atlantis semifinal matchup in 2019. However, last season the Tar Heels were big winners in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, making Wednesday the fifth contest in six seasons. Both teams could really use a win in the latest iteration as conference play looms.
Michigan Wolverines (7-3) vs. North Carolina Tar Heels (8-4)
Date & Time: Wednesday, Dec. 21, 7 p.m.
Location: Spectrum Center, Charlotte, NC
Win on this end
It was yet another escape against a smaller opponent as Michigan survived Lipscomb over the weekend, which is now the story for four of the team’s seven victories. On paper, the Wolverines were deserving of the win, but it certainly felt like it might go the other way for much of the second half.
Michigan hung on despite dreadful three-point shooting, with four-fifths of the starting lineup going a combined 2-for-9. Jett Howard still managed to put up 19 points, though, and he has proven himself to be a good shooter, so he should be able to bounce back against the Tar Heels. Despite his threes not falling, the star freshman showed a great willingness to attack the rim, which is something this team needs more of.
The lone player on fire from deep on Saturday was Kobe Bufkin. In probably the best game of his career, the young guard scored 22 points on an 8-for-9 shooting effort than included four triples, while stepping up in a big way while Dug McDaniel struggled in his second game as the starting point guard. The Wolverines desperately need Bufkin to look the part, and this was a step towards showing he can do what is needed.
All of this just goes to show how inconsistent this season has been for Michigan. Every game someone will step up while others really struggle, and the names change nightly. North Carolina is a flawed team, but still one with a lot of talent. For the Wolverines to get the much needed resume-stabilizing win, the offense is going to need its best performance in some time. That means Howard stepping up, McDaniel shaking off Saturday, and Bufkin continuing to assert himself as a major contributor.
Rising to the occasion yet again
About the Tar Heels: the four losses all came against strong competition (Iowa State, Alabama, Indiana, Virginia Tech), but that means they have just one quality win this season, an overtime nail-biter against Ohio State at Madison Square Garden over the weekend. As frustrating as the start has been for Michigan, North Carolina fans are even more disappointed.
That being said, this is still a dangerous team. Kenpom has this as a top-10 offense and a respectable defense. When North Carolina loses, it is because the offense is not clicking, typically due to a pretty poor effort from behind the arc. However, it was at the rim where the Buckeyes really suffered, meaning Hunter Dickinson is going to have to play a great game on the defensive end.
The names are familiar, and scary. Armando Bacot is a force inside, and Caleb Love is liable to score 20+ on any night. The hope is more limiting these two than outright stopping them, but really it will require a complete defensive effort which unfortunately has been a big challenge for Michigan. The games against Virginia and Kentucky were not terrible, though, and perhaps the team will step up on the bigger stage once again. Otherwise, this could end up pretty ugly.