- Nancy Lieberman, Basketball analyst / Writer
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The last time North Carolina and Tennessee clashed, a trip to the Final Four was on the line.
The future of the season is hardly at stake when the second-ranked Tar Heels (7-0) play host to the No. 4 Lady Vols (6-0) on Sunday (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET). But the game will mark the first loss of 2006-07 for one of them -- and undoubtedly some shuffling in the polls.
A look at some big questions heading into the matchup, which should mark the best nonconference game of the season so far (Tennessee leads the all-time series 12-2):
Is anyone playing better than Tennessee's Candace Parker right now? And how should UNC defend her?
No one is playing better than Parker, whose overall game and confidence are at an all-time high. She's averaging 18.8 points on 58 percent shooting from the field, 7.5 rebounds, 2.8 blocks, 2.3 steals and 2.0 assists in 26.3 minutes per game.
No one has been able to stop her this season. However, unlike some teams, UNC has the athletes to play against Parker, or at least deter her. To do that, the long and athletic Tar Heels constantly must give Parker different defensive looks -- play behind her, in front of her, run big players at her, run small players at her, throw a double-team on her every once in awhile.
UNC must keep Parker off balance and make her a facilitator with the basketball -- not a finisher. The Tar Heels must force Parker to make decisions and not let her have her way offensively.
UNC's frenetic pace and running ability are also an advantage. The Tar Heels are essentially a full-court team, and they should use that to try to force Tennessee's other players to beat them.
When UNC beat Tennessee 75-63 in last season's Cleveland Regional final, Parker put up impressive numbers (20 points, nine rebounds). But Parker -- who was saddled with two fouls just 4:33 into the first half of that game -- also had eight turnovers. She's more mature and experienced now, but the Tar Heels' swarming defense can be tough on anyone.
How should Tennessee defend UNC senior Ivory Latta?
In that last meeting, Latta was incredible, tallying 20 points, nine assists and four steals in 40 minutes. The 5-foot-6 All-American point guard scored nine of UNC's final 11 points, including six straight free throws in the final 56.1 seconds.
Simply, Tennessee really didn't have anyone to guard her. Now, however, Tennessee's Shannon Bobbitt is at least as quick as Latta. Plus, she has the added advantage of being a junior (Bobbitt is a junior college transfer), so experience should not be a factor here.
Bobbitt must focus on preventing Latta from penetrating and force her side-to-side. If Latta can get to the rim and break down Tennessee's interior defense, that means she's either scoring on high-percentage shots, going to the foul line or driving and dishing to her teammates for the open shot.
This season, Latta -- who like Parker is a national player of the year candidate (both were named Kodak All-Americans last season) -- is averaging a team-high 14.2 ppg, shooting 45 percent from the field and 41 percent from 3-point range (15-for-37), while also tallying averages of 3.3 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 2.0 steals per game.
Which team has the better frontcourt?
The Tar Heels are big and strong and more experienced inside -- and aside from Latta, get most of their scoring from their forwards.
Junior Erlana Larkins (12.1 ppg) and senior Camille Little (12.0 ppg) lead the way, ranking second and third, respectively, in scoring. But freshman Jessica Breland (11.3 ppg) and junior LaToya Pringle (10.3 ppg) give UNC five players averaging double figures. Plus, sophomore starter Rashanda McCants, a 6-1 forward, adds 9.6 points per game. Larkins is shooting 63 percent from the field, while Breland is hitting 65 percent and Pringle 57 percent.
"Erlana Larkins was a really tough guard for us last year, and Camille Little can make great plays," Tennessee coach Pat Summitt said in her weekly teleconference. "They just have great balance and depth."
Granted, the Tar Heels haven't played anyone significant -- their "closest" win was by 25 points, and their average margin of victory so far is 49 points. But through seven games, UNC is averaging almost 54 rebounds with a plus-23.8 rebounding margin.
Still, Parker is the X-factor here; how much time will the versatile All-American spend in the paint?
Also, Tennessee's frontcourt has a slight size advantage. While Breland, who comes off the bench, and Pringle are two of UNC's tallest players at 6-3, Tennessee's Nicky Anosike (8.2 ppg) is 6-4 and Sidney Spencer (13.2 ppg, 67 percent from 3-point range) and Alex Fuller (9.0 ppg) are each 6-3.
The Lady Vols, who have beaten three ranked teams from the Pac-10 (UCLA, Arizona State and Stanford),are averaging 35 rebounds.
The battle in the paint should just be a great athletic matchup.
Tennessee will win if ?
the Lady Vols have few turnovers and can outrebound North Carolina.
This is also a game in which Tennessee's Alexis Hornbuckle will look to step up and pay good ball. She needs to make some big plays.
Summitt said getting off to a fast start is also key.
"I'm very hopeful that we handle their pressure better; I think we're better equipped in the backcourt with our guard play this year," Summitt said. "I thought that was a big difference in the game, matching their intensity and taking care of the ball better. Last year we turned it over way too much early on. I have to believe that as a basketball team we're more skilled and experienced (now)."
UNC will win if ?
the Tar Heels continue to get balanced scoring, can create some turnovers from their defense and push tempo.
What does this game mean to the top-25 rankings?
Regardless of which team loses, neither should fall more than two or three spots in the polls. UNC is still regarded as a Final Four team, and we think Tennessee has that potential, too.
Tennessee might have more to gain, at least in the rankings. Should the Lady Vols "upset" the Tar Heels, Tennessee likely would jump past UNC to third -- which means Oklahoma would move from third to No. 2. But it's only early December, and these polls won't mean anything come March.
Nancy Lieberman, an ESPN analyst and Hall of Famer, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. Contact her at www.nancylieberman.com.