But Carolina won in casual, dare-I-say, 2008-09 fashion, dispatching the Purple Aces 76-49 in a game that induced former baseball great Don Mattingly — an Evansville native — to unrepentant yawning.
This in effect was the homecoming game for UNC junior big man Tyler Zeller, a native of Indiana who enjoyed a solid outing of 18 points and eight rebounds in front of the home folks. Through the first quarter of the season, Zeller is without question playing at an all-conference level.
In truth, the Tar Heels didn’t receive much of a challenge in this game. Yes, Carolina’s ever-improving defense was strong, but the Aces also missed a lot of relatively clean looks. UNC’s offense actually sputtered for long stretches, leading to a poor 43 percent shooting performance from the field — and the reality may have been worse, due to strange omissions on the official box score.
But Evansville was much worse, shooting only 32 percent from the floor and a truly horrific 15 percent (3-for-20) from behind the arc. The Purple Aces failed to notch any double-digit scorers, a testament to Carolina’s defensive pressure but also due to self-inflicted wounds.
The Tar Heels did enjoy some genuinely good moments. They easily won the rebounding battle and took better care of the ball, committing a relatively few 12 errors. They also shot 72 percent from the foul line, the second straight outing when free throws at least were not a disastrous proposition.
A more lingering trouble is UNC’s three-point shooting; the Heels made only 4-of-18 from distance, despite numerous open looks. Harrison Barnes missed all five of his long bombs — and his troubles are a mounting concern for the team’s long-term chances — and Leslie McDonald went 0-for-2. Freshman Reggie Bullock did knock in 2-for-5, but Carolina’s wings simply have to shoot the ball better if the Heels are going to piece together a successful ACC campaign.
In part for that reason, the club’s identity is beginning to take shape. No longer able to out-score opponents in the fashion that previous Carolina teams did, this year’s Heels appear to understand that stout team defense will enable them to compete even during cold shooting nights.
Can they withstand such errant marksmanship against an elite opponent such as Duke? Probably not.
But this isn’t a team that realistically can win a national title. These Tar Heels aim to earn their way back into the NCAA Tournament field, and defense alone may enable them to accomplish that goal.
The next foe is Long Beach State on Saturday night in Chapel Hill, another outcome that fans realistically can hope will be decided early. After falling to 4-3 last week, a win over the 49ers would improve UNC’s record to a respectable 7-3.
To see the UNC/Evansville box score, click here.