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UNC 83, Loyola (MD) 67: Three Things Learned

The Hubert Davis era is off to an exciting start!

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Wisconsin at North Carolina Joshua Bickel-USA TODAY Sports

A new season of college basketball is underway in a huge way, with an opening Tuesday like we’ve never seen — just check out this stat!

Within that, of course, was UNC, taking on the Greyhounds of Loyola (Maryland) in Chapel Hill to open up Hubert Davis’ career as head coach. The Tar Heels won comfortably, 83-67, and even though it’s only been one game, I think we can start to draw some tentative conclusions. Here are three that can hopefully be built off as the season continues.

1. This team’s offense is for real

In each of the past two seasons, an early sign that the offense might not be up to par was that the Heels failed to score 80 points in both openers, which each team would proceed to only accomplish (in wins) in mid-late January. The 2021-22 Heels have already shaken that monkey off their backs after hitting 80 with about 3 minutes to go in this one, and doing so shooting better than 52% from the field and 38% from three. Even better, the Heels had multiple sources of offense: whether it was Kerwin Walton splashing jump shots, Caleb Love attacking the rim and getting to the free throw line, Brady Manek using an array of face-up and post moves around the basket, and Dawson Garcia cleaning things up around the basket, the Tar Heel offense was multidimensional and went through several players, with all four of the aforementioned hitting double figures.

And even though the numbers were more than respectable, it was still pretty evident that there’s room for improvement: UNC was just 17/28 from the free throw line, with two normally good shooters in Love and Manek combining to go 7/13. Several layups that should have been made were left short across the board, and Armando Bacot and RJ Davis, hampered by foul trouble, didn’t really get chances to establish themselves in the game despite doing pretty well in limited action. The exciting part, to me, is that those didn’t look like “areas for improvement” so much as “things that clearly went wrong,” and that this team, already having shown more on offense than its two predecessors, can be a lot better on that end right now.

2. Hubert Davis wasn’t lying about defense

We knew from a bunch of the promo material from this offseason that Coach Davis is putting a special emphasis on being a great defensive team. But still, one of the more eyebrow-raising things to come out of his press availability in the past week or so was the idea that he’d guarantee that each game’s Defensive Player of the Game, as voted by the staff, would start the next game, potentially keeping the starting lineup from being set well into the season. It’s a coaching strategy that on its face seems to risk cohesion and the ability to start fast in exchange for a tangible motivational tool, and we’ll see throughout the season how it plays out. From last game to this one, though, we’ve already seen some shifts. In the exhibition against Elizabeth City State, Walton and Garcia started at the 3 and 4, respectively. Against Loyola, they were replaced by Leaky Black and Manek. While it’s possible that Garcia and Manek are just neck-and-neck in the competition for the 4 spot (they’ve certainly been playing like it), Black for Walton was definitely motivated by defensive ability. The broadcast team and Adam Lucas have said as much, that Davis is challenging Walton to be a better defensive player, and it looks like part of the challenge is, more or less, “you can’t start until you start playing better D.”

Especially on the perimeter, there were a few lapses on defense from everybody, but the results were pretty good: Loyola shot 44% from the floor and 28% from distance. The Heels forced a middling 12 turnovers, but 7 of them were steals, leading to 15 fast-break points. Overall, while there are still some kinks to be worked out (as expected when changing schemes), it looks like the players have really bought into the tweaked defensive scheme which is emphasizing not allowing opponents the middle and more drop coverage on ball screens and getting good results from it.

3. Improvement from the sophomore guards is as advertised

Every UNC fan, nay, everybody who had watched more than 5 seconds of UNC basketball last year, knew that if Hubert Davis’ first year was going to be at all successful, then Caleb Love and R.J. Davis would have to make massive leaps from last year, where both were inefficient shooters inside and outside the arc, inconsistent-at-best playmakers, and generally struggled adjusting to college ball. All the buzz from inside the program was that it was happening — that a combination of a proper offseason and the increased spacing available with a new offensive philosophy, along with just making the leap from freshmen to sophomores, had resulted in both of them becoming the players we wanted them to be last year. Davis stole the show in the exhibition, punctuating a great day a hot streak midway through the second half, while Love took a backseat (though he did show an improved shooting stroke and facilitating ability).

Against Loyola, the situation got reversed a bit: Davis played pretty well, hitting 2/5 shots (1/2 from deep) for 8 points, dishing out 5 assists two 2 turnovers, and grabbing 5 rebounds, but played only 23 minutes due to foul trouble and didn’t really assert himself. Love, meanwhile, was pretty brilliant, leading all scorers with 22 points on 7/13 shooting (2/6 from three) and adding two assists to no turnovers. He looked much more decisive as a ballhandler whether he was moving to pass or drive, had a noticeably more comfortable handle on the ball, and consistently attacked the rim without falling away from help defense, either putting defenders on his hip and finishing, forcing help to foul, or using a spin move to create space. His finishing was also more fluid than it was last year, emphasized by a tough left-handed layup through a foul that finished off the UNC run that put the game away — last year’s version of Love definitely looked too stiff to pull that off. You’d like to see the shooting improve, as he was only 2/6 from three and 6/10 from the free throw line, but 2/6 is already an improvement over last year (and he was 2/4 against ECSU) and his free throw shooting history is encouraging that this might be an aberration. Consider this an official-unofficial Player of the Game for Love, by the way. Overall, it looks like the two sophomore lead guards are ready to take UNC back to the winning ways we’ve missed for too long.