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UNC vs. James Madison: Three Things Learned

The team we expected finally showed up.

NCAA Basketball: James Madison at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

After Tuesday’s rough outing against Gardner-Webb, the first inklings of real concern started to permeate throughout about Carolina basketball. The win wasn’t inspiring, Hubert Davis talked a lot of yellow flags, and the team coming in Chapel Hill on Sunday had been an offensive juggernaut — albeit against pretty weak competition. The team just seemed to lack...something...from the squad that had the amazing run at the end of last season.

After Sunday, those concerns are a little less harrowing.

The Tar Heels raced out to a 19-point lead in the first half, played basically even in the second, and coasted to their fourth victory of the season, 80-64. So what have we learned in our last home game before December 10th(!)?

Armando Bacot is still Armando Bacot

Despite the outstanding second half against College of Charleston, a lot of the concern about the season had been how Bacot hadn’t really factored that much into the Tar Heels’ scoring thus far this season. Despite playing 36 minutes on Tuesday night, he only had ten points, and he didn’t make himself the force that he needed to be for his team. Now, is it him or is it his teammates not forcing the issue?

Turns out it’s a little bit of both. On Sunday, Bacot was a force, getting 19 points and 23 rebounds. He had a double-double by halftime as he took advantage of his height advantage, going strong to the paint and seemingly after every loose ball. There had been some joking that part of the reason his numbers were so strong were him missing bunnies and getting offensive boards, but he nabbed fifteen DEFENSIVE rebounds, and had several “you better get away from me” looks on his face. It was easily his best game of the season, even if it wasn’t his best offensive output, because not only was he working to get the ball but his teammates made sure he got it. It’s a good sign as the competition is about to ramp up significantly.

Puff Johnson is back

This was a surprise. Word had come from Carolina that Puff had been given the all clear earlier in the week, but that he wouldn’t be seen in a game until their game against Portland in Portland. Yet, when the horn sounded at 16:35 left in the first half, Johnson came jogging onto the floor. Clearly once he got back on the floor he meshed quickly with the team, because he didn’t leave the court until 12:43 left. That’s a pretty decent run for someone who missed his first three games.

Johnson only scored six points, but that was still good enough for him to be the leading scorer off the bench, and more importantly he earned his minutes by being a pest on defense. Carolina’s defense as a whole was really good, holding the high scoring Dukes to their lowest point total of the season by far. It’s a great sign to see him on the court, confident, hitting shots, and able to give a good amount of minutes again. As Matt noted after Gardner-Webb, it’s pretty clear the Tar Heels missed him. It’s probably not a coincidence his first game back resulted in Carolina’s best game of the year.

Hubert Davis still doesn’t trust his bench

The good news is that with the return of Puff Johnson, Davis was able to rotate nine people into the game. The problem? All five starters played over 30 minutes, and chances are good that without Caleb Love (30 minutes) getting into foul trouble in the first half and Bacot (35) in foul trouble in the second, their numbers would have been higher. In his first game back all season Puff Johnson played 13 minutes. Dontrez Styles didn’t see the floor again.

There is a bright spot here, though. Seth Trimble has clearly earned some trust from Davis with 12 minutes off the bench, and rewarded his coach with 2-4 shooting, including a made three, a steal, and a rebound. It does show how Davis is a different coach than Roy Williams in that he values the win and isn’t afraid to use minutes early to try and motivate players. Williams would opt for the long game, knowing that games now don’t matter as much as conference play, trying to build a bench and give guys experience.

Now, a lot this could be due to the fact that you have a starting five that is nothing but juniors, seniors, and grad students. It’s a lot easier to go with the known than the unknown, and since they don’t play again until Thursday, giving the starters a heavier load so they can find their rhythm before the Phil Knight Invitational is probably more important. It’s just interesting to note it’s a big difference in early season coaching by Davis versus Williams.

It’s also very difficult to win three games in four days. It’s clear the bench players are going to need to show some life during practice to get into these games, but don’t be surprised if you see a repeat of this box score in terms of minutes should the Tar Heels make it to the title game. Sometimes you just need to win the game.