There are a lot of parts we could discuss about this game but leaving the Smith Center tonight one thing struck me as the most important benefit UNC gleaned from this game:
For the young players especially and for the team as a whole, this game gave the Tar Heels an good indicator of their potential which should serve as a great basis to further development. The first half was as good a half of basketball we have seen from UNC since...well...the last first half of basketball the Heels played versus Michigan St. During that game in April, UNC took a 55-34 lead to the locker room. In this one it was 50-34 and 363 days ago versus MSU it was 53-39 at the half. In three straight games against the Spartans, UNC has dropped 50 or more in the first half. If you are Kalin Lucas, Raymar Morgan and Delvon Roe you have to be thinking as you head to the locker room: "Oh crap, it's happening again."
The "it" that was happening, happened mainly at the guard positions with Larry Drew and Dexter Strickland. For Drew this really began versus Nevada when the sophomore PG hit two threes and posted a double-double with 12 points and 10 assists. In this one, Drew was more than up to challenge of playing against the Spartans quick guards. Drew scored 18 points through a combination of perimeter shooting and drives to the basket. He also dished out six assists versus three turnovers. Given the pressure on him in particular to step up in a game versus a highly touted backcourt, it was as good as you could possibly hope for. On top of the offense, Drew did a fairly decent job defensively. MSU ended up 2-20 from three point range. The Heels were able to contest many of those shots and when they were not doing that, Drew and Marcus Ginyard in particular forced MSU out of its offensive rhythm and deep into the shot clock. The perimeter defense got a little ragged as the game worn on and UNC began to serious overplay the three point shot leading to penetration. Despite that it was a stellar performance from the guys on the perimeter.
MSU essentially had no answer for Ed Davis or Deon Thompson. Tyler Zeller was effective in spurts. The overall production of the post game was pretty much what we expected. The only complaint is rebounding was a 39-39 dead heat despite the Heels enjoying a significant size advantage. MSU hustled to crash the boards and snagged some long rebounds off misses. The play of the big men along with Ginyard who actually one upped Drew in assists and made a few key baskets carried the Heels through the heavy stretches.
The surprise of the evening came from the freshmen however. Call it a coming out party or the night the switch was flipped or holy crap these guys are as good as advertised. I don't much care what we refer to it as and while I do understand there are still some rough patches ahead, it was clear the younger players finally got to the point they felt comfortable. First and foremost on that list was Dexter Strickland. During the first few games I was really concerned Strickland wasn't going to make much of a impact this season. After this game, you can see the potential and some glimpses of what it looks like when realized. Strickland in fourteen minutes had nine points, four rebounds, three assists and most importantly zero turnovers. Strickland, who looked overwhelmed at times this season, found his comfort zone. He was aggressive, showing no fear when driving to the basket. On one play he took the ball in and had it blocked. The next time down he drove the length of the floor and got a layup. Strickland capped off his incredible first half by hitting a three at the buzzer that was made more impressive by the fact he collected the ball beyond midcourt, checked the clock, dribble down and took a good shot instead of panicking.
Joining Strickland in making major contributions were both the Wear Twins who played solid minutes in the first half and John Henson. In Henson's case, he still is getting a feel for the offense and seems to be lost at times in the flow of the offense. On defense he is a freak. Henson had four block and every one of them were ball normal human beings would have never gotten to. His length gave MSU a ton of trouble. Overall his fourteen minutes on the floor were his best of the season. If Henson figures the offense out, then he could be out there more and that will be something to watch.
In short the freshman were sensational as indicated by this 11-2 run, all scored by the four rookies on the floor.
Now it is easy to be drawn to the scoring but look closely and you see Henson with an offensive board, a block and a steal. Travis Wear had two rebounds and David Wear snagged an offensive rebound along with the put back. During that same span, MSU only scored once and committed two turnovers. It was a nice stretch which shows some of the potential this class has being realized just eight games in.
Overall, it was a great win. By no means was it perfect. MSU, to their credit, hung around which must have been tough considering they were put into the "down by double digits at the half" boat twice before against UNC. The Heels are still prone to some mistakes as indicated by 17 turnovers. The rebounding and defense on dribble penetration was not as good as one would hope. The Heels also gave up way too many layups either via backdoor cuts or drives to the hoop. This was a nice win and should be enjoyed as much but also know there is plenty of work to be done yet. The good news is we have seen the first signs of this team coming together and everyone getting on the same page. If that progresses at the pace it has so far, the Heels will be riding high come late January.