The national champions kicked off their title defense with a win in their opener against Northern Iowa Friday night at the Smith Center. Despite the fact that both Joel Berry II and Cameron Johnson went through a full set of warmups, neither played in the team’s first action of 2017-2018. No matter, the Heels pulled off the win fairly easily anyway.
As a team, the Heels were awfully impressive despite being short-handed. Two true freshmen started the game (Jalek Felton and Garrison Brooks) for the first time since the 2007 season. Kenny Williams got the start in place of the injured Johnson, and he proved to not miss a beat after his season-ending injury last year.
Luke Maye picked up right where he left off after becoming the tournament hero back in April. He easily led the team with 26 points and ten rebounds in 28 minutes of play. Joining Maye in double figures were Williams and Brooks. Sterling Manley just missed with nine points.
The contributions from Kenny were not confined to the scoring column. He was all over the floor at every opportunity, chipping in five assists and three steals. No player ended up in foul trouble with Roy Williams cycling through various lineups and heavily leaning on his bench. The Heels out-rebounded Northern Iowa 37-29 and turned the ball over just seven times. UNC also had eight steals.
For all the understandable concern about how the young big men would perform, those fears seem largely unfounded in the opener. Brooks was amazingly impressive, and Manley looks like he will be able to do a lot of great things down low as well. In particular, Manley has a sweet, smooth free throw stroke that should serve him well. How often can you say that about a guy who is all arms and legs?
There were a lot of promising things to take away from this one, but the biggest one is that we were still watching an incomplete team. Imagine tonight’s results with Berry and Johnson. Imagine how good Brooks and Manley will be with a bit more experience. Imagine the continued growth of Williams and Seventh Woods.
It’s early, extremely early, but tonight proved why there are still plenty of reasons to believe in what this team can do. People in the media may sleep on them after losing so much of their scoring from last season, but nights like tonight may just make a few extra people realize the potential of a team that won it all just a few months ago.
Want to nitpick? It’s definitely there. The team shot a lot of threes that didn’t go down and, relatedly, their three-point defense left a lot to be desired. That’s something to work on going forward for sure. Tonight, though? Enjoy this one. It was exciting.