*Carolina's impressive start reflects both individual improvement from a year ago and higher team functioning as a unit. Offensively, Carolina has returned to the quaint notion that the most efficient and consistent offense is one that works from the inside out, and a mindset of trying to get a layup or get fouled as the primary option every single possession. As a result Carolina is now shooting a gaudy 57 percent from the field after two games. That won't hold up over the course of the year, but it's clear that we're going to witness the reversal of a three year trend in which 3-point field goals per game rose and overall field goal percentage declined every year. 50 percent shooting–long the Carolina standard–is a very reasonable benchmark for this team, so long as it can stay healthy. Carolina's strategy of running early and often is going to produce plenty of layups, and so far the Tar Heels have made wise decisions in offensive transition.
*Equally important, Carolina's style of play is going to result in plenty of trips to the foul line and put pressure and opponent's interior defenders. The last two seasons, after historically attempting about 50% more fouls shots than 3 pointers, Carolina actually attempted more 3 pointers than foul shots, a sure sign of a perimeter-happy team: It's gong to be a much different story this time, and even if Carolina's foul shooting doesn't improve much—it needs to—the result is going to be a more consistent offensive unit highly unlikely to fall into four or five minute-long scoreless stretches. So far, Tar Heels like Sean May and Jawad Williams have been able to convert not only the wide-open layups and dunks, but also the more difficult shots within 5 feet of the basket–or at worst draw a foul.
*Almost as impressive has been Carolina's halfcourt defense. Carolina forced 22 turnovers against Old Dominion, fluently changed looks within an overall man-to-man structure, and often had ODU's guards struggling to complete passes 25 feet or farther from the hoop. Moreover, the Tar Heels were able to apply pressure without fouling and while avoiding breakdowns resulting in layups. Carolina's defensive effort was even better against Davidson, leading to 27 turnovers, although the Wildcats were better able to exploit openings for 3-point shots. Again, it won't be so simple against the stronger opponents, but this has the makings of a team–the first in many years–with the potential to impose its will on the opposition on the defensive end.
*So give both the early-season offense and defense about a "B+," with solid signs of becoming an "A" student.. The less impressive part of the preliminary report card, not surprisingly, concerns rebounding. As in the exhibition games, Old Dominion was able to garner an uncomfortably high level of offensive rebounds–16 to be exact. With Damion Grant sidelined indefinitely and David Noel in a cast for the next few weeks, there isn't a whole lot the Tar Heels can do beyond what freshman Justin Bohlander is already doing: go in there and scrap and scrap. Bohlander is perhaps a polished go-to move away from being a very solid ACC player, and he will be physically overmatched at times, but you have to like the fearless attitude he's displayed early on. Hopefully the Winston-Salem native will take maximum advantage of his early minutes against a relatively light schedule to really settle in and grow some confidence as a vital part of Carolina's plans.
*The other pleasant surprise of the young season is the early play of Jackie Manuel. This is an example of a coach properly defining a player's role, asking him to do the things he is best at, and that player responding in the right way. Roy Williams correctly observed that relying on Manuel to hit open 3-pointers is not a sound recipe for a consistent offense; equally important, when a player isn't trying to do things at which they have a low probability of success, they are less likely to lose confidence. Right now, it looks like Manuel has fully absorbed the important message that he doesn't have to try to be James White or Julius Hodge–being Jackie Manuel is plenty good enough for this coach and this team. Watching Manuel metamorphasize from a player who frustrated many Carolina fans over his first two years to one who could well win a special place in supporters' hearts should be one of the most satisfying storylines of the season ahead.
*And so it begins: there are many more positives from these first two games that could be cited, from Rashad McCants's emerging defensive presence to Melvin Scott's overall game to the sense of teamwork and determination already visible in this unit. From a team development point of view, perhaps the best thing that could have happened Monday was for Davidson to make the inspired run to cut the lead to 11 early in the second half. That run pushed the Heels to play sharper and play better coming out of the next timeout.
Indeed, much comment has been made about the somewhat soft non-conference schedule, and there might be a danger if opponents stop playing hard or revert to street ball mode once they fall behind 20 or so. Carolina fans should hope that future opponents like Cleveland State and George Mason come ready to play and battle as hard as Davidson did Monday night–if so, those games should be good growing experiences for this team, even if they are not close.
It's a good thing that Carolina doesn't need to play mistake-free ball right now to win games, because the Tar Heels have a ways to go to weed out all their bad habits and perfect their decision-making abilities. But Carolina has already become an entertaining team, and it's very, very good to see the players having fun and working their tails off for one another. These first two games may have Roy Williams and his staff pouring over videotape to identify areas of needed improvement, but they will also have Carolina fans looking to their calendars in eager anticipation of the games to come and the journey ahead.
Thad Williamson is author of More Than a Game: Why North Carolina Basketball Means So Much To So Many, available at www.dollarsandsense.org/bookstore.html. You can email Thad at firstname.lastname@example.org.