North Carolina Off and Running Out of the Gate

Posted by Matt Auerbach on November 14th, 2018

Two weeks ago, when asked to submit my preseason national rankings, I knew the decision to place North Carolina as my top-rated squad would draw some raised eyebrows. Three games into the season, however, I have seen nothing from the Tar Heels (maybe something from Duke) that has given me reason for pause — in fact, their performance in this small sample size has been even better than anticipated. For the first time in more than three decades, North Carolina opened its season with two true road games, a challenge rarely taken by the sport’s elite (Duke, for example, won’t play its first road game until January 8!). And while not tested by the strongest of competition, Elon and Wofford, which beat Roy Williams‘ team at the Dean Dome a year ago, provided difficult road environments that helped prepare the Tar Heels for what will be a conference schedule littered with those affairs.

North Carolina Has Been Quietly Humming Along Through Three Games (USA Today Images)

After rolling Stanford at home on Monday night for the third victory of the season, North Carolina now ranks third in the KenPom ratings, a product of strong performances on both ends of the floor (currently ranking fifth in both offensive and defensive efficiency). Rarely does Williams fret over his offense, but he must be reveling in the elite defensive potential that this year’s team has already shown. Freshmen Nassir Little and Leaky Black are the type of long, athletic and versatile wings whose sole purpose seems to be to disrupt the flow of opposing offenses. Little, for all of his natural ability, also appears to check all of the intangible boxes to boot — toughness, strength, desire. Those areas have not always been North Carolina’s calling cards, but this year’s squad has shown a willingness to be first to the floor and it seems to play harder than its opponents.

Admittedly, that energy comes and goes at times during the course of a long season, which is why coaches always prefer skill over will. Fortunately, the Tar Heels have plenty of that too. Preseason All-America forward Luke Maye hasn’t shot the ball very well yet (30.0% 3FG), but that hasn’t slowed his overall production, grabbing 8.3 rebounds and dishing out a few assists per contest. Fellow senior Cameron Johnson is shooting a blistering 64.5 percent from the floor and 71.4 percent from three-point range this season. He was never physically right a year ago, so it would not be surprising to anyone if he leads the club in scoring and joins Maye on the all-ACC First Team. The early returns on Garrison Brooks and Sterling Manley at the five spot have been encouraging too. Brooks was fantastic in the season opener, scoring a career-high 20 points while converting 9-of-15 shot attempts. Manley backed that up with an 11-point, eight-rebound effort at Elon. Having these two available gives Williams the option of playing with a traditional big man on both ends, providing rim protection that the Tar Heels do not have when Maye is playing center.

The Tar Heels’ backcourt play, however, has been relatively shoddy in comparison. Senior shooting guard Kenny Williams, who averaged more than 11 points per game a year ago, missed his first 10 shots of the year before going for 12 points on Monday against the Cardinal. McDonald’s All-American point guard Coby White has shown flashes of his extraordinary potential, but he has also shown flashes of being, well, a freshman — inexperience that Williams didn’t have to deal with while Joel Berry ran the show. White has spectacular end-to-end ability but it will take time for him to ease into the flow as a distributor. When that point comes, the prospect of slowing this team down becomes downright frightening.

Matthew Auerbach (70 Posts)

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