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UNC vs. Radford: Three Things to Watch

Time to see what this year’s team is made of.

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

The 2023-24 college basketball season is finally here, and the North Carolina Tar Heels are on a mission to rebound from their catastrophic 2022-23 campaign. At this point we don’t need to go through the whole gambit of what happened this offseason in terms of personnel, but for those that haven’t been keeping up, I discussed everything that happened with the roster in my best-case/worst-case scenarios piece a couple of days ago.

UNC’s first task is taking down Radford in the Dean Smith Center. For fans that are looking for this game to be a crazy blowout, it’s worth noting that last season the Highlanders played Notre Dame, Marquette, and Kansas State, and the worst loss was by 10 points. Should the Heels win by more than that? Perhaps, but I wouldn’t panic if this ends up being a closer-than-expected win.

With that said, let’s take a look at three things to keep an eye on during tomorrow night’s game.

Who will Hubert Davis start?

During the exhibition win against St. Augustine’s, Hubert Davis started RJ Davis, Cormac Ryan, Paxson Wojcik, Harrison Ingram, and Armando Bacot. The obvious notable absence here is freshman point guard Elliot Cadeau, but there’s reason to believe that Davis doesn’t plan on starting the high school standout just yet. Perhaps king amongst those reasons is that Cadeau will have to work on defending at a college level without fouling — he had four fouls against St. Augustine’s — but it also could be that it’s really hard to justify Cormac Ryan coming off of the bench.

So then, is the lineup we saw in the exhibition game going to be what we see against Radford? If I had to guess, this might be the starting lineup that we see all season, but realistically we’re probably going to see some bench players get some big minutes. Cadeau will obviously get a lot of burn, but I expect Davis to get quality minutes out of Zayden High, Jae’Lyn Withers, and Jalen Washington as well. James Onkonkwo will likely get some burn as well, but how much burn depends on how serious Hubert Davis is about utilizing his depth. The starting lineup for the Heels is likely set, but I wouldn’t put too much stock into whose name is called during introductions, because we should (hopefully) see a number of guys this season contributing.

Will Cormac Ryan be the difference-maker this season?

I know that this is more of a macro topic instead of something specifically focused on Radford, but I’ve been hearing a lot of really good things about Notre Dame transfer Cormac Ryan. Fans obviously know him as a really good perimeter shooter who gave the Tar Heels fits during his time with the Irish, but what fans may not know is that Ryan is really, really competitive. Like, really competitive.

Like punting a basketball into the stands because you didn’t make the shots you wanted to make after practice competitive.

The Daily Tar Heel published a really good story about Ryan’s competitiveness that includes quotes from Hubert Davis and other Tar Heels. This, perhaps, was the best quote via Armando Bacot:

“I mean it’s a different type of fire,” Bacot said. “It’s something we haven’t seen since [I’ve] been here — guys that really care about winning. So I feel like that, it may sound a little crazy, to have a guy punt the ball, but sometimes you need stuff like that to kind of get the team going.”

Ryan’s fire has impacted how practices have gone as well. According to Bacot, practices have been “bloodbaths,”, which may be the first time I’ve personally heard of that word being used in a non-game scenario. Yes, Ryan is a very talented shooting guard that should be dangerous on the perimeter for the Tar Heels, but think about it: what have each championship team for UNC had since 2005? Tyler Hansbrough, Joel Berry, and that one guy from the 2005 team whose name I will not mention are all guys that were extremely dangerous competitors and would rather leave this Earth than to lose. Oh, and we’ve all heard the Brady Manek stories, right?

Does Ryan’s presence doesn’t guarantee a Final Four run? No, but it does mean that a critical part of how the Tar Heels have gotten that far in the past exists on this team.

How many assists will we see against the Highlanders?

An underrated part of the exhibition game against St. Augustine’s is that UNC finished the game with 23 assists, which just one assist shy of their season-high last year. While one can argue that competition matters, let’s put this into perspective: last year’s team had 26 assists against College of Charleston, UNCW, and Gardner-Webb combined. We tend to dilute performances based on competition a lot, but anybody that watched the game knows that the way the ball was moving on offense was so much better than anything we saw last year, and it’s not even close.

While it’s easy to be confident in the Heels’ ability to move the ball around, the other component of having that many assists is knocking down shots. Radford should be a tougher defense to go up against, so it will be really interesting to see if they will be able to get as many quality shots as they did in exhibition play. If the Heels can share the ball at a consistently high level this season, it’s going to be really hard for opponents to stop them.