SMITH CENTER/CHAPEL HILL — North Carolina’s first and only tuneup prior to the opening of the regular season took place on Friday night, when the Tar Heels pummeled hopelessly out-manned Belmont Abbey 107-59.
Both the win and the margin of victory were expected given that the Crusaders — yes, I had to look that up — are a Division II program that has posted a 3-11 record against Division I opponents since 1991.
Most of the fans in attendance primarily were excited to get their first look at the post-Tyler Hansbrough/Ty Lawson era, and freshman John Henson also was a primary attraction. Of course, anxieties about this season’s team begin at point guard, where sophomore Larry Drew and freshman Dexter Strickland are trying to capably fill a position mastered by Lawson last year.
To that end, Drew definitely appears more college ready. The native Californian received scant playing time last season, and jitters got the better of him on several occasions when he did take the court. Against Belmont, a more established Drew dished out eight assists against three turnovers, a ratio that Roy Williams happily would accept over the course of the season.
But again, Belmont Abbey isn’t even a poor D-I opponent; the Crusaders almost definitely will the be the worst team Carolina plays all season. And even in that scenario, Drew shot just 1-4 for two points in 18 minutes of action.
Strickland is the more athletic of the two players but appears more prone to mistakes. He scored eight points on 4-5 shooting but also coughed up four turnovers against only two assists. Certainly, he’ll need to improve his efficiency if he hopes to compel Williams to start him.
Many experts overlooked the Tar Heels’ lack of perimeter scoring when assessing the club’s chances this season. Ranked No. 4 in the Coaches’ Poll and No. 6 by the AP, the team that took the court on Friday night definitely did not appear to belong in a national top 10. This year’s Heels are a sell early, buy later proposition and perhaps an uncertain one at that.
On Friday, the Heels’ starters at the two guard positions and wing forward combined for just 17 points. That’s 60 percent of the lineup — and only 17 points in 52 minutes of playing time.
The strength of the team is the frontcourt, where senior Deon Thompson finally has emerged from Hansbrough's shadow. Thompson performed aggressively and delivered 23 points and eight rebounds on 11-12 field goals. Yes, this was a poor opponent, but in any context that’s an impressive statline.
Sophomore Ed Davis, who is expected by most to enjoy a huge season and become an NBA lottery selection next spring, was relatively quiet in amassing 13 points and six rebounds, although he added five assists and four blocks.
Blocked shots actually were one of the night’s dominant features and are likely to be throughout the season. The Heels blocked 17 shots in total, Davis tying Henson for the game high.
Speaking of Henson, he’s likely to become a conversation centerpiece during the early stages of the season. The extraordinarily long rookie is 6-feet-10 yet is playing at the wing forward position because of the talent logjam in the frontcourt.
While he did enjoy a big night blocking shots, Henson didn’t dispel concerns that he is playing out of position on the perimeter. He airballed two free throws and chucked up a couple of ugly jump shots en route to five points on 2-6 shooting.
Beyond those points, it’s unwise to draw too many conclusions in an exhibition game against a club the caliber of Belmont Abbey. Fortunately, the wait won't be long: The Heels tip off officially on Monday night against Isiah Thomas-coached Florida International.
To see the full box score against Belmont Abbey, click here.