With Elon’s basketball program cancelling their game December 12th game against Carolina due to Covid concerns, North Carolina Central University stepped up to the plate. The MEAC school out of Durham was a great opponent on paper. They were a bus drive away, weren’t wrecked by Covid, and they offered a chance for the Tar Heels to get a win and gain some confidence after back-to-back losses to Texas and Iowa.
Unfortunately, the Eagles didn’t get the memo and made for an uncomfortable afternoon in the Dean Dome. Here are three things learned from a closer than expected victory over NCCU.
Carolina is still going through growing pains
Call it what you like. Growing pains. Lack of chemistry. Freshmen getting used to playing in college. All of it applies, and the Tar Heels look choppy early in the season.
UNC fans familiar with Roy Williams and his early season tinkering are used to this. ‘Ol Roy is still learning about his team. He throws out odd combinations and gives minutes to more players than he will deep into conference play. We’re still experiencing that. The bargain is that uneven play early in the season will get smoothed out, and tough losses in November and December lead to more wins in March.
But things are a bit different. Caleb Love and R.J Davis are the third and fourth freshmen point guards in a row to start the season leading the attack. After a stellar four-year tour with Joel Berry (who served as an apprentice to Marcus Paige his freshman year), we’ve had Coby White and Cole Anthony take over the team for one-year cameos. The lack of continuity is evident.
Cole was unlucky with injuries and a much weaker supporting cast. Coby was blessed to have an arsenal of offensive weapons surrounding him. Caleb and R.J. find themselves somewhere in the middle. While it may be disappointing that Carolina didn’t blow out NCCU by 30 points, it was a valuable experience getting the freshmen guards live action against a well-coached team itching for an upset. They will only benefit later in ACC play by getting some extra reps in against the Eagles.
Carolina wins while Garrison plays poorly
Garrison Brooks, the ACC preseason player of the year, hasn’t reached the heights that he did last season. Roy Williams has said as much. This season, Brooks has been a steadying presence in the line-up and a reliable scorer.
Against NCCU, he was neither. He scored a season-low five points on 1-3 shooting. He clumsily fouled guards on hedges. Worse still, he only had four rebounds, something that will surely draw Roy’s ire, considering the size advantage UNC had over the Eagles.
Fortunately for Brooks, his post teammates had his back. Armando Bacot led the team in scoring with 19 points, and shot an impressive 7-10 from the free throw line. He made some good jump shots from the elbow when NCCU was sitting in a zone, echoing Luke Maye feasting against the Duke zone. He also led the team with 11 rebounds, five on the offensive glass. Carolina can survive a bad night from Garrison Brooks if Armando Bacot acts as a counterbalance.
Throw in another eye-opening performance from freshman Day’Ron Sharpe. The Greenville native had 12 points (including a perfect 4-4 shooting from the charity stripe). He scored in a variety of ways, including dunks, alley-oops, and an impressive drive from the top of the key that was guard-like in its quickness.
Day’Ron continues to intrigue. How far Carolina goes this season may depend on how fast he adapts to ACC play and turns his potential into production... and domination.
Turnovers continue to torment the Tar Heels
Tell me if you’ve heard this before. Carolina commits an inordinate amount of turnovers in a game, prompting a loss or a single-digit win over an inferior opponent. That’s happened four times now in the young season, and it has cost UNC two games. Stanford (24 turnovers, 67-63 win) was a bit close for comfort. In the three games prior to this one, Carolina averaged 18.67 turnovers. That is simply
(for those viewing on Apple News: imagine Jimmy McMillan yelling “Too Damn High!”)
The Tar Heels turned the ball over 18 times against NCCU. Caleb Love remains the main culprit with six giveaways, but his errors are at least committed while trying to make plays for his teammates. He’s still calibrating, and with the incomparable Kendall Marshall guiding him, I fully expect to be wowed by Love’s playmaking later in the year. We have seen him miss on some long bounce passes on the break, some due to inaccuracy and some due to lacking chemistry. He’ll start hitting on those plays soon.
The turnovers that will drive Roy crazy (and lead to only eight minutes of playing time) are the kind that Walker Kessler committed late in the game. After skying for a rebound above his head, Kessler gathered himself and brought the ball low. NCCU guard Nicolas Fennell stripped the ball from him, giving the Eagles a free possession down 13 with 1:39 left.
NCCU missed a three-point attempt after that steal, but if Kessler makes the same mistake in ACC play, there’s a better chance that shot goes in, and the margin is closer than 13. This tape ought to help clean that up.