One down, thirty-something to go. North Carolina's top-ranked basketball team toppled Penn 86-71 on Saturday evening to kick off the 2008-09 season, showcasing commendable potency even without injured superstar Tyler Hansbrough and fellow starter Marcus Ginyard.
As expected, Hansbrough's absence forced UNC to rely more heavily on perimeter jump shooting. The Quakers also employed a zone defense, daring the Tar Heels to hoist long bombs. For that reason, the Heels struggled to gain permanent separation from their feisty opponents, despite a few stretches of excellent basketball.
The statistical effort was balanced, but easily the most surprising aspect of the game was that UNC was led in scoring by freshman center Tyler Zeller (18 points) and in rebounding by freshman power forward Ed Davis (14 boards). Zeller and Davis each logged more than 20 minutes of playing time and enthusiastically capitalized on their scoring opportunities, shooting a combined 8-12 from the field.
Based on the early returns, UNC will be able to survive the post-Hansbrough era in the frontcourt next season.
Inside the Smith Center, crowd loyalties were tested. For a No. 1 team playing its first game of the season, much of the conversation centered around the football team's (ultimately futile) quest to win at Maryland in a game that began a half hour prior to the hoops tipoff.
Media attention was scattered as well, and a prevailing sentiment emerged that UNC's first true test would occur Tuesday night against Kentucky. (Of course, this is the same Kentucky team that stunningly lost at home Friday night to VMI, so maybe not.)
Roy Williams generally was composed on the sidelines, showing anger after some of the team's turnovers but mostly backing off given that this was the team's first game and that the Heels seemed in control throughout.
"It was a nice 'W' the first day," Williams said. "I thought we were a little more tight, more than I wanted us to be."
It's obviously silly to dive headlong into the tea leaves based on games in November — and particularly because of the team's injury situation — but Penn laid a blueprint UNC is likely to encounter throughout the regular season and in the early rounds of the NCAA Tournament.
The Quakers spread the Tar Heels defensively, using numerous screens to free shooters and utilizing quickness advantages on the perimeter. Because UNC frequently enjoys a substantial size advantage, the philosophy is to lure those big men away from the basket and force them to defend on the perimeter.
Penn executed that plan well for stretches, but they failed to generate easy shot attempts and settled for many long, hurried jumpers.
On the other end of the court, the Tar Heels must prove they can exploit an opponent's zone defense by drilling open three-pointers. Williams reiterated after the game that he believes UNC will be a very good shooting team this season, but they hit just 7-22 from behind the stripe on the day. Clearly, then, consistent marksmanship will become critical as the season progresses.
Moving on, the Tar Heels play the Wildcats in Chapel Hill on Tuesday night in a battle between the nation's winningest all-time programs. Ginyard is out until at least December, while no timetable has been announced for Hansbrough's return.