It wasn't pretty but a win is a win is a win. Here are some thoughts on that.
Survive and advance kind of game
Obviously this isn't the NCAA Tournament nor are the stakes anywhere close to where they will be come March, however there was a survival feel to this game for the Tar Heels. UNC did not play well on either end of the floor with various known issues from the past showing themselves at times. As UNC fell behind by eight points with four minutes left, the questions regarding UNC's toughness were as loud has they've been in awhile. This was UNC last season, not playing well enough in a game the Tar Heels should win and failing to show up in crunch time.
Then the Tar Heels flipped the script in impressive fashion. The defense did just enough and UNC's offense finally put together a solid string of possessions to seize control of the game. Justin Jackson and Kennedy Meeks did quite a bit of work there but it was threes from Joel Berry and Theo Pinson that really pushed the dagger in to the Wildcats collective heart.
The Tar Heels played like hot garbage for much of the game but when it came time to play wining basketball, UNC did just that. That's the mark of a good team. It is should be a sign of a team that took a very big step forward in pulling out a win of this nature.
Justin Jackson and Marcus Paige together is going to be fun to watch
Because UNC has not played well at times, there is a notion out there that Marcus Paige returning won't matter. On one hand there are some areas that Paige's return won't fix. The defense will improve but there will still be concerns about how well the Tar Heel big men can guard, especially away from the basket. Paige will help stopping dribble penetration but even with him last season that was an issue as was foul trouble. And while the senior guard will make his teammates better, there is a limit to even that. Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks, for example, need to find a consistent level of intensity and focus which is solely on them.
All that being said, given what Justin Jackson and Theo Pinson have given so far, adding another legitimate perimeter scorer who can create for others and must be account for by the defense should help tremendously. Assuming the Jackson of the past three games is the Jackson for this season, that's an incredible 1-2 punch on the perimeter. With Paige out there, Pinson can be more focused on defense and doing all the little things. His three point shooting is good enough to keep the defense honest. The perimeter scoring will be good enough to keep defense from packing the paint and daring UNC to hit outside shots.That should open up the interior a little more and give Meeks, Johnson and Isaiah Hicks more room to operate.
Paige's return presumably moves Joel Berry back to the bench. It's clear he is not quite ready to run the offense and has struggled to initiate it in the half court. Paige will solve that and overall the offense should see a better level of execution. Berry off the bench along with Nate Britt will be able to play with Paige at times and also face less pressure.
Again, there is still room for the team to grow but Paige return should provide a nice boost on various levels, especially if Jackson continues to play at this level.
Odds and ends
-UNC is up to 71% as a team from the free throw line. After opening the season with four games of free throw shooting 63% or worse, the Tar Heels were over 80% in both games during the CBE Hall of Fame Classic. Of note was the 5-6 to seal the win over Kansas State. Paige's return will only help the free throw shooting.
-While we always make a big deal out of the opposing player who goes nuts, it should be noted it may have actually evened out in this game. Kamau Stokes was 3-14 entering the game from three and hit 6-8 from beyond the arc to fuel Kansas State. On the flip side, Kansas State's two best three point shooters, Dean Wade and Barry Brown(a combined 13-27 in four games) were just 1-4. UNC had some defensive lapses in guarding Stokes but the two guys who claimed the lion's share of the perimeter scoring prior to facing UNC were largely kept in check.
-After three games of Jackson averaging 6.7 ppg, the sophomore wing forward averaged 22.6 ppg over the three game Midwest swing hitting 63% of his shots, 6-13 from three and 11-12 at the line. Yeah, that's good.