We are now just one week away from the Tar Heels’ season tip-off against Radford, and given the state of the football program, it cannot get here soon enough. Carolina is coming off a couple impressive showings in exhibition wins over FAU and St. Augustine’s. They reportedly dominated the Owls in a secret scrimmage and throttled an albeit less gifted Falcons team on Friday, 117-53.
In the Heels’ 64-point victory over St. Augustine’s, there really wasn’t anything to complain about. Obviously, I am cautious to overreact to a preseason game against a Division II opponent, but they showed you everything you could hope for from a team perspective. The defensive intensity was there from the opening tip until the final buzzer. We saw myriad different lineup combinations and virtually no drop-off from one to the next. The ball movement was purposeful, the pace was pushed consistently, and six different guys made at least two three-pointers. It was Carolina Basketball.
Still, the Heels made some mistakes that were masked by their superior size and athleticism. Thus, I will take that into account and look at the full scope when trying to assess this team’s strengths and weaknesses. But of course, we have to kick it off with a strength.
Strength: Guard Play
Elliot Cadeau is the real deal. After apparently playing well against FAU, his elite vision, quickness, and athleticism were on display Friday in the Dean Dome. The Falcons’ smaller guards simply never had a chance staying in front of the shifty Cadeau as he completed multiple ankle-breaking drives to the hoop. He consistently made winning plays and put his teammates in favorable positions.
To nobody’s surprise, RJ Davis was superb offensively, particularly from beyond the arc, but he also appears to have taken a step forward with his defensive instincts. He recorded two steals and was disruptive on that end all game long. The presence of Cadeau clearly benefitted Davis, as he was able to work off the ball and get catch-and-shoot opportunities we’re not used to seeing for him. When you consider heady, sharpshooting veterans such as Cormac Ryan and Paxson Wojcik, the Heels have lots of versatility out on the perimeter.
Seth Trimble sat out of the St. Augustine’s game with a lower body injury, but there’s been plenty of chatter about the strides he’s made this offseason. We know he can be elite guarding the ball, but Trimble’s offensive development is something to watch. He doesn’t have to be an elite shooter, but if he can be aggressive and effective scoring the basketball, Trimble could be in line for a sophomore leap.
With Davis, Cadeau, and Trimble, Hubert Davis has three crafty ball-handlers, each of whom can run the offense at any given point. Though he’s not necessarily a guard, Harrison Ingram is extremely skilled for his size and has experience playing point forward. Coach Davis should have plenty of fun, explosive lineup combinations with this backcourt.
Weakness: Three-Point Defense
I don’t know how confidently I can say this particular group will struggle in this area, but it’s not a UNC basketball season without at least a few three-point barrages. Still, the Heels’ lack of size in the backcourt could be conducive towards teams shooting over them. When Davis and Cadeau are on the floor together, one of those guys will likely be guarding someone with a significant height advantage. With the Heels’ tendency to over help on drives to the basket, putting those guys in closeout situations could result in some comfortable shot attempts for the opposition.
The flip side of that is Davis, Cadeau, and Trimble have a chance to wreak lots of havoc with their quickness and peskiness. Their ability to consistently stay in front and put pressure on the ball will have a big impact on whether or not the Heels can limit the three-pointers. This should be a versatile defense altogether, but there are matchups that other teams will try to exploit. Communication and cohesion will be imperative in countering those efforts.
At the end of the day, this Carolina team wants to dominate the boards and speed things up. As we’ve seen in the past, this often begins with forcing teams to shoot the ball further away from the basket, and oftentimes they make a high percentage of those shots. If the Heels are able to efficiently capitalize in transition, I think most fans are fine giving up the occasional open three, but don’t be surprised if there are a few particularly frustrating outings.
Strength: Veteran Leadership
With so many new faces, concerns about potential chemistry issues, especially early on, are natural. Well how do you ensure those potential issues are dealt with and resolved quickly? You assemble a group of guys who have been around the block.
Despite returning just four players from last season, this Carolina team has seven upperclassmen. RJ Davis and Armando Bacot are the only ones who’ve done it all as Tar Heels, but Cormac Ryan, Harrison Ingram, Paxson Wojcik, Jae’Lyn Withers, and James Okonkwo all have multiple years of college basketball experience. The value of this cannot be understated, and it was on full display Friday.
In a game that was never in question, the Heels did a great job of communicating and remaining engaged throughout. Oftentimes, teams have one or two older guys who set the tone and keep the rest of the group focused. This group is fortunate to have a stable of veterans who can fill that role. In the starting lineup that we’ve seen so far, Harrison Ingram (junior) is the only non-senior, and is perhaps the most mature dude on the team.
The energy and vibes both during and after the game were extremely positive. Davis, Ingram, and Wojcik all spoke to the togetherness of this group on and off the court. One of the reasons they’re able to get along so well is because of the shared hunger. Not only have they seen lots of action, but they have guys who are desperate to win. Thus, this Carolina team feels much more equipped to fight through adversity in order to reach its goals.