In order to enjoy the nation’s top-ranked team beating up on an inferior opponent in an exhibition game, it’s necessary to envision the tomorrow. Without question, UNC Pembroke is happy to envision its tomorrow after getting bludgeoned in Chapel Hill by the consensus No. 1 Tar Heels by a score of 102-62 Saturday evening at the sold out Dean Smith Center.

But beyond the competitive mismatch and the assortment of gory statistics, there actually was meaningful information to be gleaned and not all of it positive for the boys in blue.

First, like last year’s team, this season’s Tar Heels are capable of terrible play. That should be a considered a given by any seasoned observer, but predictions for an undefeated 2008-09 campaign look silly when the club plays so unevenly against the Braves.

The litany of mistakes included numerous uncontested turnovers, poor shooting and regular lapses of concentration. Even with the injuries to Tyler Hansbrough and Marcus Ginyard, this experienced club most recently was witnessed suffering a historic whipping at the hands of Kansas in the Final Four. It was a little surprising they didn’t show greater focus to put more distance between now and last April.

But despite the sloppiness, there was plenty of good news as well. Most noticeably, the team’s defense was significantly more confrontational on the perimeter. Junior guard Ty Lawson (14 points, 5 assists, 6 steals) spearheaded the attack, jumping passing lanes and consistently hounding opposing ball-handlers.

Other UNC perimeter players also picked off steals and batted away numerous passes out of bounds. They fought through screens more effectively and were able to keep offensive players in front of them, a continual bugaboo last season.

In short, it’s obvious that Roy Williams has focused on defense even at the expense of offense throughout the early practices.

From a tactical standpoint, the Heels employed a more frequent usage of traps than they did last season. Most of the traps occurred after dead balls, and generally they were used fullcourt or three-quarter court, rather than in the halfcourt.

Shifting to offense, the Heels obviously didn’t resemble themselves without Hansbrough in the lineup. His absence no doubt contributed to the difficulties establishing Williams’ preferred high-percentage shots, resulting in numerous long jumpers against a much smaller team.

Among the returnees from last season, junior power forward Deon Thompson (14 points, 10 rebounds) appears to have made major strides. He was noticeably stronger and more athletic, and overall he played more assertively as a scorer and rebounder.

Now, about those freshmen. Many fans were excited to get a first look at the newest Tar Heels, and all three of the rookies were impressive. Tyler Zeller (13 points), a seven-footer in the middle, started the game and showcased his excellent mobility as well as a nice shooting stroke and a couple of short jump hooks.

Ed Davis (12 points), meanwhile, is a 6-9 (I don’t buy the 6-10 that UNC is selling) big man who is rangy and skilled scoring with his back to the basket. Both Zeller and Davis had difficulties maintaining their position inside, however, and it’s likely another year of physical development will be necessary for them to become consistently productive.

Lawson’s backup at point guard, Larry Drew II (2 points, 6 assists), struggled with turnovers but also made nifty passes off the dribble and used his quick feet to exert intense pressure on defense. It’s unlikely he’ll ever generate as many easy baskets as Lawson does, but comparisons among veteran media in the media room were made to former UNC guard Jimmy Black.

Freshman wing Justin Watts sat out with a bruised knee.

UNC’s first official game is next Saturday at home against Penn, and at this point it appears unlikely that Hansbrough will be available. Ginyard is expected to return in December.

Official Box Score