By now, I hope all Tar Heel fans have taken a deep breath and have recovered from last night’s performance. The season is young, and there is no shame in losing a road game to a legitimate Final Four contender. Step off the ledge. As with every game, there are always a few lessons. What did we learn last night?
Coach Williams continues to experiment
Roy continues to rotate Nate Britt and Kenny Williams as the starting shooting guard. Nate got the start and played the majority of the first half. This surprised most fans, as Kenny had started all three games in Maui, en route to that dominant championship performance.
As none of us care to remember, the first half did not go in UNC’s favor. Maybe Coach Williams felt the senior would be more capable of handling the pressure in an electric environment. Britt has also received the Defensive Player of the Game Award from the coaching staff for four of the first seven games. Maybe the coaching staff liked the defensive match-ups and thought Britt could help neutralize the quick perimeter duo of Robert Johnson and James Blackmon Jr.
Whatever the reason for that decision, it did not work against Indiana. To be fair, many things did not work—UNC left 12 potential points at the free throw line. However, with every game, Kenny Williams makes the case for increased playing time. It’s important to note that it was Williams who was in the game when UNC made their second half run to cut the lead to four. Williams hasn’t found a consistent shooting stroke, but he brings a plethora of other tools.
Regardless, expect this merry-go-round at shooting guard to continue.
Additionally, there was were some other interesting lineups on the court for UNC in the first half. Considering the pace, tone, and deficit of the game, there was a considerable amount of mixing and matching for North Carolina. If you’re a Tar Heels fan, you know that’s normal. This isn’t Duke and Coach K, who often rides and dies with six or seven players in November. Roy is going to see what he has, and allow his players to gain some experience.
UNC sometimes misses the chance to win a game or two in November. If that helps them win eight games in February, well, I think that’s a solid trade-off.
Tony Bradley struggles
Through seven games, Tony Bradley looked like he was ready to challenge Kennedy Meeks or Isaiah Hicks for a starting position. Not that he ever would be awarded that spot, but he at least looked like he could if asked. After last night, those expectations and suggestions need to fade away.
In his first taste against top-level talent, Bradley was largely MIA with four points, two rebounds, and four fouls. Again, plenty of things went wrong. Everyone, except Justin Jackson, played below their potential. However, through the early games, most of the competition wasn’t at the level of Indiana. Or Kentucky, Duke, and Virginia.
Bradley, and the rest of the post players, now have a taste of what a real battle can feel like. That’s ok. This is how young players grow. Bradley will be fine. Just temper your expectations a little. He’s going to have a few more of these games throughout the year. It’s part of the process.
It is also obvious to everyone that UNC’s chances of success will rest on Bradley’s ability to grow through the season. Especially if Hicks or Meeks find themselves in foul trouble like they did last night (Hint: They will).
UNC takes a punch. Nobody punched back.
Indiana came out swinging. Haymakers, alley-oops, and three-pointers were raining all over the court. UNC did not have an answer. Except for about three minutes in the second half, North Carolina could not make a dent in the lead that IU established in the first 10 minutes of the game.
Give credit to Indiana. They played a physical, disciplined game. Any weak, open-handed slap delivered by UNC was met with an upper-cut or right hook. It was frustrating, and poses a larger question for future battles.
Nobody for UNC seemed willing to step up and take control. Justin Jackson played well, but except for a few well-timed shots, you never got the feeling he was going to carry the team on his back. The post players struggled all night to find a rhythm. Nate Britt continues to do too much with too little, instead of letting the game just come to him.
In essence, it felt exactly like previous years when the team would wait for Marcus Paige or Brice Johnson to do something—anything—to save the team. This was the first time, post-Marcus/Brice that the team needed someone to step up. Nobody truly did. That has to change.
The most likely candidate is Joel Berry, but he seemed oddly out of sorts. Perhaps IU deserves most of the credit for that. In defense of Berry, he did make up for his lackluster shooting by providing eight assists. Foul trouble also kept him sidelined in the first half, when IU threatened to make the contest a blow out.
Regardless, there was a clear “deer in the headlights” look on numerous player’s faces. There is too much experience on this team for that to happen. I look forward to a different response next time UNC get’s punched in the mouth.