On the Carrier Classic, UNCA, and the 2-0 start

As many have already written, the Carrier Classic never actually stopped feeling like an exhibition game with the surrounding spectacle as the main event. Fortunately for Carolina we came out with the win, since a loss would have certainly brought home the realization that it was, in fact, a real season opener, and launched a bevy of frustrated accusations that the conditions prevented a legitimate contest. All parties involved should be glad that the team that was supposed to win won.

It is true that the spectacle, the slippery floor, the strange sight lines,  and perhaps the wind and the temperature, too, prevented either team from ever getting into the flow of the game. The Heels pulled away because we were finally able to get into our transition for a few isolated stretches, but for most of the game, we looked out of sync, evidenced by Kendall Marshall’s stat line of five assists and five turnovers.

But as SI’s Seth Davis wrote after the game, the collective experience of the event is one that should be continued, even if the basketball component of it unsurprisingly did not measure up. As a fan watching on television you still had clear views of the water and skyline in many of the angles on the game, so at no point did you forget that you were watching a game played outdoors. The most enjoyable aspect to me remains that the entire nation fixated on a particular regular season college basketball game for a day, and that the game involved North Carolina. To have the President introduce the game, and even to have celebrities in the audience and participating in halftime events, are generally thrills reserved for the high levels of professional sports, but Friday night it was college basketball, and specifically UNC.

UNC 67, Michigan State 55

There are many things one can attribute to the strange conditions, but the enormous rebounding advantage we surrendered to Michigan State, especially on their offensive boards, wouldn’t seem to be one of them. Tom Izzo-coached teams are typically among the nation’s best at rebounding, but so are we given last year’s performance by Henson and the significant height advantage we have over almost every team we will face. Hopefully we can write this off as an anomaly moving forward into the season.

They only hit one each, but the three-pointers by P.J. Hairston and Reggie Bullock were huge in getting our offense going after a sluggish start. Too often we didn’t have that to resort to last year, and even when it occurs in fleeting moments, its importance should not be underestimated.

There is absolutely no reason that Justin Watts should be the first big man off the bench, as he was against Michigan State. I understand the concern of bringing a freshman in under the bright lights of a nationally televised game on an air-carrier. But in order to send in the senior Watts before the freshman James Michael McAdoo, Roy not only has to choose someone significantly less talented, but someone significantly smaller playing out of his natural position.

The sequence Friday night went like this: after UNC was already struggling mightily on the boards at the outset of the game, Roy sent in the under-sized Watts for Zeller; Watts promptly got beat for two rebounds and put-backs, a four point swing, before McAdoo replaced him.

Justin Watts was recruited as a wing before moving to the front court after the Wear twins transferred. To play a player out of position because of necessity makes sense; with a polished freshman star who is already among the best in the country on the bench it does not.

ESPN’s Robbi Pickeral wrote after the game about the difference a year makes for Harrison Barnes. It likely struck many as an odd post, since Barnes didn’t quite have a dominant game, at least not by the expectations set for him before the season. But he did show some of what we had hoped to see after the off-season; he was fairly efficient, needing eleven shots to score his seventeen points, he got to the foul-line more, and he established his presence early, not by taking quick outside shots, but by making two from mid-range.

UNC 91, UNCA 75

That was nice, Roy Williams does UNCA a favor by bringing his top-ranked, legendary program from the flagship school to open up the tiny new gym of UNCA’s, and the students gratefully respond by chanting “Overrated” at us because we were only up by 17 in the closing minutes. We apologize for being so awesome that we had to fly from San Diego in the middle of the night to play the game, we were perhaps a little too tired to put on the show you were hoping for. Nonetheless, it was mostly the outside shooting of your players that kept UNCA in the game closer than expected.

Kendall Marshall had the appropriate response: according to Adam Lucas he laughed and clapped along with the students from the bench. If Eddie Biedenbach is as classy as Roy, he attempted to silence the chant himself, as Roy did against Ohio State in 2006.

We are not spending any time worrying what is up with Marshall after Sunday’s performance. He had a lackluster exhibition and an uneven performance on the carrier, but he was as good as ever against Asheville. This was especially true during the run that stretched our lead for the first time, when Marshall was on the floor with four reserves. He assisted on three consecutive baskets by Bullock, Hairston and McAdoo, respectively, which also gave us a glimpse at the value of our deep and talented bench.

It is too small of a sample to gauge yet what kind of repertoire John Henson is consistently going to bring to the offense this season, but if those turnaround jumpers were more than luck, he finally may be realizing his reputation out of high school. Tyler Zeller looked ready to pick up precisely where he left off in last year’s NCAA tournament, and these two and Barnes are loudly confirming that we do have the nation’s best front court.

After the game, Roy said that he wants to play his bench more, but hasn’t because they are not yet where he needs them to be in terms of progression. He even went so far as to justify his decision by saying that the starters earned their starters’ minutes. This is a strange revelation from Roy for a couple of reasons: to me, that the bench isn’t ready isn’t quite reflected on the court, and more obviously, this is a radical departure from Roy’s notorious entrenched ways. Carolina fans have spent much of his time here clamoring for him to play the starters more and shorten the bench; are we really going to deal with him playing the starters too much?!

I haven’t thoroughly fact-checked this, but I cannot remember Roy ever opening the season with two games in which all five starters played 30+ minutes. We don’t often open the season with a high profile game followed by a true road game, but nevertheless, the man who usually can’t make it to the 18-minute mark without a sub went straight through the first television timeout against Michigan State.

I’m hesitant to criticize given my frustration in past years, but this season we have two shooting guards on the bench who can play a valuable role in alleviating our primary offensive concern, lack of outside shooting. They look ready to do that given the chance, so we should see them on the floor.

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