Given six days rest, the team apparently found some of the basics skills that had been missing these last couple of weeks. They outrebounded the Wolfpack, held them to under 40% shooting, and cut back on the turnovers. More importantly, they found an intensity in their offense that had been sorely lacking. The scoring came from the players whose leadership we've been looking for – Thompson had 20, Drew 18, and Ed Davis, still visibly a step slow from his injury had 12, mostly at the expense of Tracy Smith. Throw in Dexter Strickland's 14, mostly on transition baskets and a not-horrible performance from behind the arc, and the Heels looked like a team who has turned it around, and put the slow conference start behind them.
Naturally, my mind thinks of reasons why this might not be the case.
The biggest one, of course, is that this is N.C. State, and UNC's improvement could just be places where the Wolfpack aren't very good. I said earlier that State does very little in the way of offensive rebounding or generating turnovers, and sure enough, UNC owned the defensive boards and limited their turnovers. The Wolfpack's interior play was also unusually soft, with Tracy Smith in foul trouble for large portions of the game. So, yes the bigs played well, Henson included, but there wasn't as much frustration causing physical play as the Heels will see against a lot of opponents. And Marcus Ginyard is still struggling, and the team as a whole had lapses of old, failing to capitalize on a couple of fast breaks and blowing a decent lead before and immediately after halftime. We won't even mention the atrocious free throw shooting, because this is a family-friendly blog.
But UNC's defense was an unalloyed good thing tonight. After a quick start, Tracy Smith was held scoreless for almost sixteen straight minutes, mostly by denying him the ball and quickly collapsing on him with double and triple teams when he did get his hands on it. And they were able to do so by baiting the rest of the Wolfpack into taking ill-advised threes. State was 7 for 22 behind the arc, and couldn't get their shots off over the height of the Heels defender. (Although watching Javier Gonzaez try and fail to get a shot over John Henson is incredibly entertaining.) Carolina is going to have their hands full with another quick, penetrating guard in Sylven Landesberg this weekend, so to se them have some success against Farnold Degand is encouraging.
Tonight was a good start, no question about it. With a long rest until Sunday's game against a Virginia team regressing to the mean, UNC can build some momentum. If nothing else, they've regained a bit of swagger and caused a lot of misery to State fans. And there's nothing wrong with that.