In less than 24 hours, the Tar Heels tip off in the Bad Boy Mowers Battle 4 Atlantis, a marquee early-season tournament showcasing a handful of the nation’s top teams. The eight-team field plays in a three-day, three-game guarantee bracket that ranges from Wednesday to Friday. Like many other teams across the country, Thanksgiving week will endure the first early tests for a new-look North Carolina team in a young college basketball season.
As fans, these games can be full of overreactions, panic alerts, and bad losses. I can assure you, though, that a mid-November game doesn’t always hold the weight that it feels like it does when you are eating your turkey and mashed potatoes on the couch. That said, we have a lot to learn about this UNC Basketball team, and there is a lot to watch for in their opener tomorrow and potential matchups throughout the tournament.
Here are three things to keep your eyes out for when the games begin:
Rotations in tight games
Hubert Davis got the memo about deepening the rotation after the turmoil surrounding the team’s bench play (or lack thereof) in the 2022-23 season. In each of North Carolina’s three opening games, nine different players have seen double-digit minutes. Now, it is fair to say that the strength of opponent may have played a role in those decisions as well, which brings us to be curious about what changes in the Battle 4 Atlantis.
Potential opponents such as Arkansas, Michigan, and Villanova are just a few members of this tournament that could easily give the Tar Heels all they can handle. When games do come down to the wire, who will Hubert go to?
Elliot Cadeau has been the lead option off the bench so far, but Jalen Washington and Jae’Lyn Withers haven’t been far behind in minutes per game, and who’s on the court when it matters most will be indicative of the trust and progression of this teams bench.
While a ten-man rotation can be effective, it is typically not Hubert’s style in games where every possession matters. I expect some eye-opening changes in minute distribution and answers about who will be the primary impact players off the bench in this tournament.
Guards vs. elite defense
Northern Iowa, North Carolina’s first opponent on Wednesday afternoon, has averaged 69 points per game against scored them this season. Once the Heels get to the latter part of their trip, they will come across either Villanova (59 PPG) or Texas Tech (50.7 PPG) on their side of the bracket. What’s my point? Well, the Tar Heels will be playing stout defenses all across this tournament field, which will be a different look from what they’ve seen thus far.
This will be a true test of Carolina’s new parts and their chemistry as a whole. They will most likely face full-court pressure, traps, and different defensive sets in an attempt to rattle a team that is still learning how to operate together. The age experience will go a long way in this regard, but the intensity, athleticism, and size just won’t be comparable to what UNC has dealt with in their first three contests.
The guard play, specifically, will need to thrive to get the rest of the team into their flow and offensive sets. Armando has seen about every defensive look you could possibly see in college basketball, so my uncertainty sits more with the backcourt. Elliot Cadeau will have to showcase his high-level playmaking against serious power five defenses, and I look forward to seeing how he complements more accomplished guards in RJ Davis and Paxson Wojcik.
Momentum is real, especially in college basketball. For those who think otherwise, watch Rob Dillingham’s 12-point spurt against Kansas in the Champions Classic. That’ll fire you up.
I believe this holds extreme significance for North Carolina in hopes of a deep run past Thanksgiving. Due to the back-and-forth nature we expect in these games, the Tar Heels must find ways to create these quick, electrifying runs to create separation and momentum. Consider a small gym with a limited crowd along with the back-to-back-to-back game fatigue the team may face, and think of how crucial an 8-point swing could be.
It starts with stringing together stops and hitting open looks. From there, find ways to get people loud and on their feet. As hypothetical as it sounds, it matters, and very well could be the difference when the Heels return to the plane and head back to Chapel Hill.
On the other side of this narrative is the ability to weather the storm when opponents go on runs of their own. How can UNC prevent them from happening, and when they do, how can they respond? This early in the season, with so much to figure out across all teams, the little things like momentum and how it’s reacted to can answer many questions about where the team currently stands.