Well, anybody asking for more offense after UNC’s first game was certainly rewarded, as the Heels hit the century mark on Friday night against College of Charleston after only getting the Chapel Hill crowd their coveted biscuits once all last season. On the other hand, though, all of the first game’s defensive prowess seemed to evaporate against the Cougars, and we ended up with a pretty similar game to last year’s matchup on the CofC floor. As we start to learn what this team is and will be, here are a few things we gleaned from the win:
1. Hubert Davis is still working on bench usage
Through a bumpy first half, nine Tar Heels got minutes: The starters — Caleb Love, RJ Davis, Leaky Black, Pete Nance, and Armando Bacot — were aided by Seth Trimble and D’Marco Dunn, who were first off the bench, as well as Tyler Nickel and Dontrez Styles. Dunn led the reserves with 7 minutes off the bench, Nickel and Trimble played 6, and Styles went back to the sidelines after 5, for a total of 24 bench minutes out of 100. All played good minutes, with the possible exception of Styles, but couldn’t really change the tide of the game from a 1-2 possession Cougar lead. In the second half, even after the starting five had brought the Heels back level and looked like they’d finally gotten into the game, Hubert Davis didn’t seem to trust his bench to keep that momentum going. Trimble played five big minutes where his defensive energy seemed to elevate the team, and Dunn and Nickel got in for about a minute apiece just to test some defensive matchups, it seemed, but that’s 92 second-half minutes played by the starters, with Love never leaving the floor. Last year’s Iron Five was, according to the man himself, a function of Davis losing the players from the bench he could trust. But at the start of the season, it now seems a little like he’s got to unlearn that mentality a bit. He has good reserves and can insulate them with different starting lineups, and has to be less quick to hit the panic button that sparked last year’s run.
2. At the very least, this team didn’t forget how to score
The game against UNCW was a bit of an eyebrow-raiser as the Heels struggled to deal with pressure, use screens effectively, and move the ball (as we were reminded multiple times on Friday night’s broadcast, the Heels had just 4 assists in their first game), and played the game at the Seahawks’ glacial pace. In this game, while it might have been the other team dictating tempo again — this time in the other direction — the Heels were up to the challenge. Even as the usual offensive threats looked like they were struggling, UNC as a team got hot and stayed hot, helped at first by Leaky Black’s two early threes. Black would finish 6-for-6 from the floor for 15 points. UNC was 50% from the floor in the first half, before hitting a different gear in the second and hitting better than 71% of their shots, including 19/21 of their two-point attempts as they figured out ways to space out the Cougars and get the ball to the rim. UNC’s presumptive leading scorers Love and Bacot poured it in during the second half, with Love scoring 17 of his 25 and Bacot 27 of his 28 in the period. And speaking of tempo, the Heels also outscored the Cougars in fast-break points, 19-6, which was often a trouble spot for this team last year — Caleb Love especially looks a lot more comfortable running the break and finishing through a last-line defender. While they weren’t able to recapture the defensive mojo from Monday’s game, this game, especially the second half, was a welcome reminder of what they’re capable of on the offensive end — and they weren’t even hitting their threes.
3. The rebounding thing is officially a little concerning
For the second straight game, UNC was outrebounded by a smaller team, and while overall rebounding numbers don’t matter to me, what does matter is that CofC corralled 15 offensive boards for a 38% offensive rebounding rate and scored 15 second-chance points off of them, which ended up being a big reason for their building a lead in the first half. And even more concerning was the how of it. Armando Bacot, the best rebounder in the country last year, looked slow to read the ball off the rim and wasn’t boxing out effectively, and while his rebounding impact was more than the 6 officially credited to him because of several key tip-outs, he was far from the dominant board presence we’ve come to expect. Pete Nance seems to still be adjusting to the physicality he needs to play with in a UNC jersey, as he was consistently out-fought for rebounds by smaller players and finished with just one board for the game. And all of UNC’s reserves, playing wing positions where they’re expected to rebound, still haven’t gotten their hands shaped up so they can really snare the ball and end possessions — this is especially a problem for Dontrez Styles, who looks just one step away from being a complete will-imposer on the defensive end if he can just hang on to the ball. The bulk of UNC’s rebounding work, even in the second half as the Heels did outrebound CofC, was done by the guards, especially Caleb Love, who led both teams with 9 boards with a couple of catches that would make Josh Downs proud.
I think improvement on this front is going to have to start with Nance playing to his size, either taking advantage of attention paid to Bacot by opposing box-outers or forcing them to commit equally to him and freeing Bacot’s hands to do what they do. We’ll see if he can make that adjustment, similar to how Brady Manek had to learn how to defend more in the post, going forward. But I think we’ve seen enough through two games to see it as more than a blip.