CHAPEL HILL/SMITH CENTER — North Carolina’s opening defense of its national championship happened against a team led by a guy who felled UNC back in 1981: Isiah Thomas. And for those who tuned in to Monday night’s 88-72 victory against Florida International, a great deal of the focus centered on the Golden Knights’ head coach.
Thomas, an NBA Hall of Fame guard who spearheaded Indiana past Dean Smith’s Tar Heels in the 1981 national championship game, drew media types from throughout the college basketball universe in his college coaching debut.
But, as expected, it was Carolina’s size and strength in the frontcourt that proved decisive. The murmur throughout the stadium prior to the game was that the Heels had played poorly (which they did) in their exhibition contest against Belmont Abbey on Friday night, and after the game there appeared to be a sense of sprouting relief among the faithful.
Everyone expects solid performances from senior post Deon Thompson and his frontcourt running mate Ed Davis, but it was aggressive, confident play from sophomore point guard Larry Drew who generated the most anxiety abatement. Drew led a controlled attack and tallied seven points, six assists, three rebounds and a steal against only two turnovers in 21 minutes of action.
A dominant theme from these early season games will be the very deep rotation employed by Roy Williams. The Tar Heels involved all 12 scholarship players in meaningful action, the result being that the coaching staff can eyeball a variety of individuals and lineup combinations but also must sacrifice continuity in a specific contest.
What lessons were learned against overmatched FIU?
First, four players appear ready for the brutal stretch of games that awaits the Heels during the early season: Drew, Thompson, Davis and utility senior Marcus Ginyard, back from a foot injury that sidelined him nearly all of last season.
Beyond those four, however, major question marks remain. Sophomore post Tyler Zeller wields a smooth jump shot with range to 15 feet, but on Monday he had trouble securing the ball in traffic. Freshman John Henson is freakishly long and tall (6’10”) for a wing player, but he appears to be out of his element on the perimeter.
Meanwhile, backup point guard Dexter Strickland, another touted freshman, suffered through freshman jitters in his first official outing en route to five turnovers.
On that note, turnovers are likely to loom as a season-long problem. The Heels coughed up the ball 26 times against a club that’s significantly worse than anything they’ll face in the ACC, and certainly other teams will recognize the deficiency and attempt to coerce UNC into more errors.
That said, this is a very young team, and there’s no sense in overanalyzing the club’s long-term chances in November. Carolina returns to action at home on Wednesday night against N.C. Central.
To view the official box score, click here.