Game One

Game one is in the books. Friday night’s tilt with Northern Iowa marked the first chance for North Carolian men’s basketball to officially take the court since that fateful first Monday in April when they cut down the nets as the 2017 national championships. But now that the rings have been presented and the banner hangs next to its six brothers, it’s time to start anew.

Just eight of the 15 Tar Heels who helped cut down that net remain on the roster, joined by seven new Tar Heels eager to have some fun on their own. And that’s what Friday night was; it was fun. 

No one ought to make grand pronouncements toward either the positive or the negative based on one game; after all, as the UNI beat writer who sat to my right said, Carolina will face more talented teams this season. But for game one, this was pretty good. Questions remain, but many questions were answered.

The short-term mystery entering Friday night was, who would start at point guard. With Final Four Most Outstanding Player Joel Berry out with a broken bone in his hand, it was Seventh Woods and Jalek Felton vying for the job. Felton got the nod based on a better week of practice, but each was effective. Felton scored five points and had one assist and two rebounds in 22 minutes; Woods had nine points and two assists in 18.  They were out-assisted by fellow guards Theo Pinson and Kenny Williams, but we’ll get to that later.

The most definitive answer to a reasonable question was answered by Luke Maye. Effective off the bench as a sophomore, particularly down the stretch in the middle portion of the NCAA Tournament, Maye averaged just over 14 minutes per game last year. With Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks and Tony Bradley all gone, Maye returned as the most experienced post player, by far. Could he carry the load down low and help the young bigs along? Yes. Yes, he could. Maye had his best game as a Tar Heel, with 26 points and 10 rebounds in 28 minutes. He was 11-16 from the floor and 2-3 from long range. Maye showed that he is a complete player. Is he taking a risk by shooting from deep, stepping out as a big man himself? “It helps when we get offensive rebounding, but like Coach says, if it goes in, then nobody has to rebound it, so every shot I take I think is going in, so I’m going to continue to shoot and continue to play to my strengths.”

If he does that, the Tar Heels will be in good shape. 

The new Tar Heel big men showed strides. Garrison Brooks is clearly the most polished (more on him from Jack Leland tomorrow), but Sterling Manley too showed up with 9 points and 8 rebounds off the bench. Brandon Huffman appears to be a work in progress; he’ll need to run the floor better to play extended minutes. 

Kenny Williams was just happy to be back (Read C Jackson Cowart’s excellent story on Williams here). The Tar Heel wing filled up the box score in his first game since February, with 10 points, five assists, three steals and a rebound in 28 minutes. “I’m just trying to have fun this year, and I did tonight,” Williams said. “It was just a lot of fun.”

Particularly impressive was Williams’ playing within himself, as eager as he was to hit the court again after missing Carolina’s tournament run. He didn’t force anything, instead letting the game come to him. “I just tried to focus on effort, mainly on the defensive end,” Williams said. “I wanted to challenge myself. I didn’t want to let my guy score, so I took that to heart for myself. And everything just kind of fell into place.”  

One particular sequence exemplified Williams’ night. A few moments after drawing a charge, he stepped out into a passing lane, tipping the ball off a UNI player before a pass went out of bounds. Jogging back up the court, he got a pat on the backside from head coach Roy Williams.  “It’s all about effort. If he sees the effort, sees the constant and how much you’re giving into it, not caring about what’s going on during the game, just giving constant effort, he likes that stuff, so he’s going to let you know when you’re good and when he appreciates it.”

On the very next play, Williams got the ball on the wing, took two dribbles and laid in a beautiful finger-roll.

Theo Pinson didn’t have his best game as a Tar Heel, shooting just 1 of 6, all three-point attempts, from the field, but he had five assists and three rebounds and was a steadying influence. Particularly when Berry returns, he ought to look to fill in more statistical categories rather than miss five threes. 

Speaking of which, Berry dressed and went through warm-ups, though he did not play. Cameron Johnson too dressed but he did not play due to a mild neck injury early in the week. Those two should return soon, and they will be tremendous pieces to make a more complete team. 

But without them, Carolina put up 86 points in a game they won by 17, and they looked good doing it. Again, it’s just game one, and one shouldn’t take too much good or bad from Friday night, but with Berry and Johnson healthy, this team will be a fun one to watch in 2017-18.

Photo by Gabi Palacio