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Tar Heels cruise to their 100th season opener win against Loyola, 83-67

It’s one game, but I think it’s safe to say this team is not last year’s team.

Loyola v North Carolina Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

The Tar Heels opened the season tonight by taking on Loyola (MD) in what was Hubert Davis’ first regular season game as the head coach. He had a surprise for us right away, as he started Caleb Love, RJ Davis, Leaky Black, Brady Manek, and Armando Bacot. During the exhibition game over the weekend, Dawson Garcia and Kerwin Walton were in the starting lineup, so it looks like Davis stayed true to his plan to start his best defensive players. However, it’s worth noting right away that we saw a variety of lineups all night long, and ultimately seven players played 18+ minutes.

The first half started off hot with Brady Manek and Caleb Love draining threes, and RJ Davis getting fouled on a made layup to put the team up 9-0. From there the Heels shot as well as we’ve seen them shoot in quite a while, knocking down shots from all over the floor. Love and Manek were particularly impressive, combining for 23 points and made a trio of three-pointers in the first 20 minutes. Manek only made one of his four shots from deep, but showcased a variety of shots near the rim. It’s becoming a lot more obvious just how good the super senior is, and he only got bette in the second half.

While Manek also had a big second half, it took a while for the entire team to really get going. Loyola started closing the gap to just a nine-point lead for the Heels, mostly due to some sloppy defense, some bad turnovers, and some sub-optimal shooting. Almost halfway into the second half the Heels would go on a 7-0 run to increase their lead to 17, and from there Loyola’s offense all but completely stalled out. After having 41 points at the 13-minute mark, they would finish the game scoring 26 more points, but only after going large amounts of time without making a single field goal. UNC’s defense was pretty solid for most of the night, and really if it weren’t for some of the lapses, their margin of victory could’ve been a lot bigger. Davis will have to figure out a way to get this team to play like they did the first half for the entire game, and if he manages to do this, this team is going to be really hard to stop.

As I alluded to earlier, Caleb Love and Brady Manek were this game’s top performers. Manek finished the game with 20 points and five rebounds, while Love finished the game with 19 points, two rebounds, and two assists. Love looked like he was playing the Duke Blue Devils, but somehow even better than that. It was easy to notice that his offensive game was suffering last season due to the lack of space to work near the rim, and now that Hubert Davis has created a system that gives him more room to operate he looks like he could be a contender for ACC Player of the Year. His shot looks a lot better, he is getting to the rim a lot more often, and his passing has drastically improved. Oh, and turnovers? He had zero. Let’s hope he can keep up his impressive play as we get deeper into the season.

Another player worth recognizing is RJ Davis. While he only scored six points, he also dished out four of his five assists in the first half. One has to wonder if this team has a higher ceiling than we thought a week ago, and a lot of it has to do with Love and Davis. Combine strong point guard play with really good veterans (Bacot and Manek) and the ability to knock down threes? Those are teams that are incredibly difficult to beat in March. Of course it is one game, and we’ll have to see how things look a couple of weeks from now, but right now things are looking pretty good for Hubert Davis’ first season.

Next up on the schedule is Brown at the Dean Smith Center this Friday. After that, the Heels will travel to Charleston next Tuesday before their Hall of Fame tipoff game against #7 Purdue.