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UNC vs St. Francis: Three Things Learned

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While the team as a whole has struggled in certain areas, individual Tar Heels have found ways to excel.

St Francis v North Carolina Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Following the fifth game of the season, UNC is still undefeated. That is one of very few absolutes about this team that can be provided to this point, as rebounding issues and turnovers plagued what was otherwise another dominant win as far as the scoreboard is concerned.

Of course, that wasn’t the only thing that we saw this game. Individual players found ways to fill up the stat sheet — Seventh Woods finished the game with 7 assists and 2 turnovers, Luke Maye found a way to record a quiet double-double, and Sterling Manley stepped up and pulled down 8 boards of his own.

The real meat of what happened last night, however, lies in three things: ball movement, Cameron Johnson’s new form, and Nassir Little’s breakout game. Let’s dive deeper into these portions of the game, and see if we can maybe take away something that can be applied to the Thanksgiving game against Texas.

UNC’s ball movement can be ridiculously fast sometimes

The game of basketball can never move too fast for Roy Williams, and it’s one of the things that fans have to love about his coaching style. This year he has one of the fastest point guards that I’ve seen in quite a while in Carolina blue, and it may be that Coby White is pretty darn close to Roy’s preferred speed (if he isn’t already there). Last night, however, the rest of the team did everything that they could in the first half to match that speed.

During the first half against St. Francis, there were times when the ball movement in transition and in the halfcourt were impressive. During one play in particular, the ball seemingly never touched the ground as it moved around the perimeter and was shot from the corner for a three. There were other plays in which the ball moved from coast to coast so quickly that blinking would have been a terrible mistake for someone trying to watch the entire play develop. A lot of what we saw last night had to do with a high level of intensity in the first half, and while it died down a bit in the second half, it was encouraging to see that level achieved nonetheless.

The big question with how fast UNC can play is whether or not they’ll ever be able to consistently play under control. Things were fast and aggressive, yes, but 18 turnovers take some of the joy away from that. They’ll have to clean a lot of stuff up during practice this week, because the opponents waiting for them in Vegas are different animals than the teams they’ve faced so far.

Cameron Johnson is the team’s MVP so far

Before the season started, Cameron Johnson made it a point to say that he felt like he was at 100% for the first time in a very long time. When the statement was made, it was quite a task trying to figure out what this would mean for his production — would he be more accurate from three? Would he get more rebounds? Would his defense improve? As it turns out, the answer is a little bit of A, B, and C, with a few other bonus answers thrown in. Simply put: Cameron Johnson arguably looks like the best player on the team right now.

On a night where as a team, UNC had some pretty bad moments, Cameron Johnson played one of the better games that he could’ve possibly have played. He finished the game with a team-high 20 points and shot 50% from the field. Along with his admirable shooting performance, he added 6 rebounds and 2 assists to his stat line.

It’s not just the numbers that make Johnson look like the best player on the floor, but it’s how he’s getting said numbers. He seems like he’s rarely in the wrong spot on the floor, has been aggressive on both sides of the ball, and despite the poor overall rebounding start for UNC, has continued to compete with the big men for the best rebounding average with 6.2 per game. To compare, Sterling Manley is currently averaging 5.4 rpg. It’s a startling statistic, and it is one that shows just how good Cam has been on the glass, which wasn’t one of the stronger parts of his game in previous years.

Cameron Johnson may be the key to UNC surviving their trip out west this weekend. While UNC undoubtedly has plenty of scoring options, Johnson has been able to do all of the little things so far this season that will go a long way against tougher competition. However, there might be one more player worth considering as a high-impact player. I’m sure you’ve heard of him by now.

Nassir Little knows how to create

Nassir Little to this point in this season has been excellent at not trying to do too much when he enters the game. He’s been playing well within Roy Williams’ system, has accepted that he doesn’t know everything for the sake of learning the game, and when opportunity strikes he has been rather productive. Last night, however, was on a whole other level. The best part is it had nothing to do with never-ending highlight reel dunks, although he did throw down a nice alley-oop dunk from Kenny Williams.

Nassir Little had a performance against St. Francis that can only be described as aggressive. He finished the game with 19 points and 7 rebounds, and made 8 of his 9 shot attempts from the field.

Little’s production in the second half in particular was very noteworthy. His scoring attempts came off of lobs and offensive rebounds, with the lobs being perhaps the most impressive. While not all of them ended in dunks, the height at which he had to jump just to grab the ball was incredible. As far as rebounding goes, Little was perhaps the most aggressive player for UNC on the boards to close out the game, fighting off the Red Flash to help recover the team’s poor rebounding numbers.

If there is any positive that comes from Nassir Little coming off of the bench for UNC, it’s that he provides a much-needed spark if things aren’t clicking properly with the starters. Granted, there hasn’t been a catastrophic meltdown of any one particular lineup so far this year, but once Roy starts to use fewer lineups Little’s spark will be important.

To wrap things up, Thursday and Friday should serve as reliable samples as to where this team is at now that we’re entering the tough part of this non-conference schedule. Buckle up, ladies and gentlemen. The real fun is about to begin.