SMITH CENTER/CHAPEL HILL— Top-ranked North Carolina took the court tonight for the first time this season, shrugging off a dire first half to blow out over-matched UNC-Pembroke 100-58 in an exhibition contest.
This game was played mostly because Pembroke coach Ben Miller worked for Roy Williams as an assistant at Kansas, and the gulf in class between the teams proved obvious and insurmountable. Still, for a half this game resembled the brutal stretches witnessed against Barton College in an exhibition game last season.
Strangely enough, preseason All-American Harrison Barnes shot terribly for the second straight year against a Division II opponent. Barnes actually appeared quicker and more determined to attack the rim — as his 10 free throw attempts attest — but he missed his jump shots and forced the action in the lane against traffic, shooting just 2-for-8 from the field en route to 13 points.
Barnes had company in the frown column. Kendall Marshall performed something of a Larry Drew impersonation in the first half and finished with five points, four assists and three turnovers. Nerves seemed to get the better of freshman James Michael McAdoo, who converted just 1-for-7 from the floor and finished with seven points and six rebounds. As a team, Carolina shot just 46 percent, a number elevated in the second half by easy baskets when the Braves wore down.
But no one should read too much into November — check that, October — struggles. The real point of interest in this game was observing the freshmen in their first outing as well as sophomore Reggie Bullock, who missed most of last season due to a knee injury.
Aside from McAdoo’s issues, the other guys looked good: Bullock played active defense and compiled 10 points, five assists, three rebounds and two steals in 22 minutes. My opinion, one likely to be shared with many others as the early season proceeds, is that Bullock will apply a great deal of pressure to starting wing guard Dexter Strickland. Though Strickland is quicker laterally and utilizes his excellent fullcourt speed to score points in transition, Bullock is much bigger and is a far superior jump shooter.
Thinking ahead, teams may choose to play zone defenses to force Strickland and Marshall to beat them with jumpers. For all Carolina’s abilities, playing zone against the Heels constitutes a sound strategy and one that may need to be countered with more Bullock in the backcourt. Williams said after the game that Strickland hasn’t been performing well in practice — might the Hall of Fame coach be laying the groundwork for a shift in playing time?
Or is Strickland’s greatest threat is P.J. Hairston, perhaps the most dangerous three-point shooter on the team. The freshman wing from Greensboro won the crowd early with his fire and confidence, and he netted 17 points on 6-for-8 shooting and 4-for-6 on threes. On nights when Barnes goes cold from deep, Hairston’s contributions may prove particularly valuable.
Remember, it was UNC’s inability to match Kentucky on the perimeter last season that resulted in their NCAA Tournament exit a game short of the Final Four. Some lessons need not be repeated.
Next up is Michigan State on Veterans Day in the first-ever Carrier Classic, a contest to be waged on the USS Carl Vinson, the vessel that buried Osama bin Laden at sea. With President Obama in attendance and the entire basketball universe watching, no doubt the Heels will compete more ferociously than they did against Pembroke. If not, Williams may have to beat down the temptation to dispose of additional bodies at sea.
Click here to view the box score.