It’s funny how the feelings between basketball season and football season are. In football, every game is meaningful solely because of whether you win or lose. If you lose, you search around for other ways to get meaning out of a season. It’s why fans of the two loss Tar Heels are so pessimistic now because of what was in front of them and what was lost with so much left to play.
Basketball is more of a marathon, and success is usually defined by how you do in the NCAA Tournament. With a bigger field and plenty of at-large spots, you’re allowed to watch games for the bigger picture, and not necessarily care about whether your win or lose but how you win or lose. Thus, even though Radford kept close with Carolina all night, it’s because of what we saw on the floor that there seemed to be very little stress. It’s an interested feeling and worth pointing out as we dig into the three things learned from Carolina’s 86-70 over the Highlanders last night.
This really will be a different type of team
The word from folks tied into Carolina Basketball was that this season was going to look different from the last couple. From the numerous new players that creates a ton of depth on the bench to bringing back a faster style of play, fans were assured that a more “Carolina” style of basketball would be on the court. Until last night, though, you’d be excused for having a “I’ll see it when I believe it” attitude based on who left and Hubert Davis’ reluctance to use them while they were here.
From the jump, it was clear that this was not the previous two incarnations of Carolina Basketball. In the first 80 seconds Carolina had already hit two three-pointers and Armando Bacot threw down a dunk. There was ball movement, a real urgency in the offense, no one holding the ball too long, drives to the paint, and substitutions. Eleven players got on the floor, nine of them recorded double-digit minutes, and only one-Cormac Ryan-ended with over 30. There was effort on defense, and arguably a big reason it was close was a ton of tough shots hit by a Radford team that’ll likely contend for the Big South title.
Perhaps the biggest change was that when the starters were off the floor you didn’t see a huge talent and execution drop. There were problems, but there was never a big opponent run that necessitated having to bring all the starters back. It looks a lot like the classic Roy Williams opening to a season — a ton of talent with a ton of minutes being spread around to figure out who’ll get more as the season winds on. It was nice to see it back.
Cormac Ryan fills an important hole on this year’s team
I made a
really bad great Dad joke on the Tar Heel Blog Slack about Brady Manek and the spirit he brought to the squad, but it wasn’t until Cormac Ryan was out on the floor that you realize what last year’s team missed. On a basic level it’s just about being the guy who wants to make the play and let you know that the play was made. This sequence at the end of the first half was the light bulb moment.
Ryan didn’t get any points on the play but ripped the ball away, fed a running Harrison Ingram for a layup plus a foul, and celebrated like he just took a lead against Duke in the final minute of the game. It’s not only positive energy, it’s a celebration of something other than him getting points, plus a teammate working with him to make a great play complete. On the game, he only shot 3-8 overall and 3-7 from behind the arc, but he played the most minutes and in this sequence you can see why. He also had three assists and no turnovers, and it’s that type of play that just was missing from the squad last year. Ryan was a pain in the backside for Carolina for the past few seasons, but now it looks like he’s about to be a fan favorite in Chapel Hill.
This squad still is a work in progress
I said above a big reason for Radford hanging around was hitting some circus shots, but another reason they hung around were just the massive amount of turnovers committed by Carolina. The Tar Heels committed eight in the first half alone, and the Highlanders were able to turn them into eight points. The shots in the first half for Radford also were easier as the team worked on communication and getting their assignments straight.
The turnovers, though, felt different as last year they were a product of a stagnant offense and forcing a play late in the clock. This year, it was mostly errant passes from teammates that were still getting used to each other. First year players like Elliot Cadeau and Zayden High would commit silly fouls that you’d expect players in their first game to make, and there was a real frantic energy at the start of the game despite the success Carolina had in making baskets.
This is what these early season games are for. At some point you can only get so much out of practice and you have to go up against other teams that want to prove they can knock off a power school. By the end of the game the play was getting smoother, passes were connecting, and the team didn’t move away from what was working — driving to the basket and scoring on layups or rebounds. No one player felt like they had to be the star, and even the holdovers from last year seemed to be more relaxed and playing in the flow instead of trying to force action.
There will be messy games, mistakes, and likely some losses along the way as they work toward being a cohesive team by the end of the season. Still, it’s hard to not like what we saw on the floor last night. When you see what they are trying to do, you’ll allow for some room to get there.