Basketball season has finally arrived, and the North Carolina Tar Heels kicked things off with a little revenge over the Wofford Terriers. Just a year after the devastating loss in the Dean Dome, the Tar Heels travelled to Spartanburg, South Carolina, and returned the favor, 78-67. Here are the winners and losers from the matchup.
Cameron Johnson: Johnson had a very strong debut, rightfully earning our player of the game honor. After his first season in Chapel Hill was muddled by injuries, Johnson is now 100% healthy, and it shows.
He nailed five of his seven attempts from deep, three of which came during a crucial stretch in the second half when the Tar Heels were still struggling to pull away. He also recorded eight rebounds, two steals, and two assists to go along with a not-so-great three turnovers.
In Johnson’s final season with Pitt, he was considered a very reliable perimeter threat as he shot a 42% clip from deep. Roy Williams and his staff expected to receive that same shooting prowess when he decided to commit to the Tar Heels. Things didn’t go quite as planned.
After suffering a knee injury that kept him out of the first eleven games of the season, Johnson made his Carolina debut against who other than the Wofford Terriers, a game that would ultimately go down as one of, if not, the worst home loss in the Roy Williams era. For the rest of the season, Johnson dealt with a recurring hip injury that noticeably hindered his explosiveness, and he managed just 34% from outside.
Hip surgery in the offseason seems to have worked wonders, however, as Johnson is not only shooting the ball like he’s capable of, but there’s a clear difference in his quickness and agility, especially on the defensive end.
It’s nice to see Johnson finally able to play up to his potential, and it’s even nicer to see hime return the favor to the Terriers on their home court.
Three Point Defense: To be clear, this isn’t some declaration that Carolina is finally an above-average team defending the perimeter, not yet at least. Last year’s small-ball lineup was supposed to bring improvement in this area, and that bunch ranked 316th in the country in opponent three point percentage. But the fact remains that on Tuesday night, the Tar Heels stifled a team that shot 41% from three last season, allowing just 9 makes on 35 attempts.
The driving force behind that number was Kenny Williams and the job he did on Fletcher Magee, a 44% three-point shooter just a year ago who was held to 3-16 from beyond the arc. Magee has a propensity for hitting tough shots, but he was rarely afforded easy ones with Williams draped over him all game long.
Williams wasn’t the only one who made his mark defensively. Nassir Little and Leaky Black showed off their versatility in being able to guard multiple positions. Seventh Woods, another player who’s healthy for the first time since he’s been at Carolina, did a solid job staying in front of Wofford’s lead guard, Storm Murphy. Johnson, who was a defensive liability at times last year, moved his feet really well and bothered the Terriers with his length.
It’s possible that this defensive performance was an anomaly, but for now, it’s an encouraging sign and hopefully something to build on as the season progresses.
Nassir Little: My last winner isn’t exactly the most obvious choice (Garrison Brooks posted a career-high 20 points), but I thought Nassir Little’s debut as a Tar Heel was quietly a big success. He didn’t necessarily register eye-popping stats (7 points, 2 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 blocks), but there’s a lot to be said about the way he played.
For a guy that’s projected by many to be a top five pick in next year’s NBA draft, it’s fair to think that a bench role and 20 minutes of playing time isn’t enough. But that’s not how Little sees it. He entered the game when called upon, played within the system, and didn’t force anything. His playing time is likely to increase as the season goes on and he may eventually earn a starting spot, but for now the best thing he can do is exactly what the coaching staff asks of him.
Little’s willingness to cede the spotlight to his veteran teammates is a testament to his maturity as well as his trust in Coach Williams.
Sterling Manley: Manley and Brooks were sort of thrown into the fire last season as freshman bigs tasked with replacing the likes of Isaiah Hicks, Kennedy Meeks, and Tony Bradley. Each had his ups and downs throughout the year and neither one really separated himself from the other.
However, a sentiment shared by many was that Manley possessed the higher ceiling of the two. He’s taller, longer, and his offensive game seemed a little more polished. The hope was that an entire offseason with the UNC strength and conditioning staff could propel Manley to make that freshman-to-sophomore leap. That hope isn’t yet lost, but it’s certainly bleaker after Tuesday.
Manley logged just eight minutes and failed to score a single point. On the court, he appeared to have a lot of the same problems physically that plagued him last season. Meanwhile, Brooks posted 20 points and 5 rebounds, a monster performance that seemingly put some considerable distance between the two in terms of future playing time.
Non-freshman reserve wings: We knew that the freshmen were going to have an impact this season, but I didn’t expect them to steal as much playing time as they did this early. 52 minutes between Little, White, and Black doesn’t seem like a ton, but when you consider that Woods, Brandon Robinson, and Andrew Platek combined for 20 minutes (Platek had zero), it tells you a lot about what Coach Williams thinks of the freshmen.
As for the latter trio, it may be difficult for them to find significant minutes behind the talented rookies. It’s not too often that you see Coach Williams bring two scholarship juniors off the bench, but that’s what he’s currently doing with Woods and Robinson.
The good news for these guys is that a lot is subject to change. We are likely to see plenty of different lineup combinations in the coming weeks, and everyone will get his chance. For now, though, the freshmen look to have the leg up, making the margin for error very slim for Woods, Robinson, and Platek.