What a difference a year makes.
A quick glance at the box score immediately reveals the contrast. Where once there was a scoring column filled with single digits, double figures abound. If last year's opening scrimmage was a slow plodding through the motions, this year's was an explosion of high-flying firepower. Some would say it hasn't been this much fun to watch a Carolina team go at it since the Matt Doherty era began, and it probably hasn't been this much fun since the days of Cota, Carter, and Jamison.
What seems most remarkable after watching Saturday's 102-95 romp is the complete personality change of Tar Heel basketball. I'm not talking about the soon-to-be-infamous (and already overused) "swagger," nor the implacable cool of Raymond Felton, nor the cross-armed brashness of Rashad McCants. I'm talking about what appears to be a fundamental change in the way UNC plays hoops.
Remember the days of Dean Smith's insistence on almost mathematically precise high-percentage basketball? Remember when offense started in the post and worked outward? I can still hear the press conferences where Smith would rattle off the season averages for his shooters as an irrefutable explanation for why the ball always went inside to Montross instead of out to Donald Williams.
Saturday night, with Sean May in a suit, the Blue and White barely had two post players between them, and you could argue that Damion Grant was the only player truly at home in the paint. You may think that Jawad Williams will be playing with his back to the basket--Carolina's positional needs dictate it, don't they?--but it sure didn't look that way for much of this night. With the exception of a few nice drives by Felton and Melvin Scott, a few stickbacks, and those nasty dunks on the break, low post offense was not much in evidence.
But no matter. The Tar Heels have gunners, and the early signs are they can shoot straight. Rashad McCants put up a remarkable 26 shots in about as many minutes of court time on his way to a game high 36 points. Those are impressive numbers under any circumstances. But this group of Heels was dropping in rainbows from everywhere, whether it was Will Johnson open on the wing, Felton pulling up from the top of the arc, or David Noel from wherever he cared to launch it up. Even Jon Holmes got into the act, showing that in this, his senior year, he might just have the experience and confidence to contribute some important minutes off the bench in relief of his freshman running mate.
At ACC Operation Basketball on Sunday, Doherty was still talking about the lack of defense that allowed such a feast of scoring. But he ought to count his blessings carefully. Last season, the Tar Heels struggled mightily to get open looks, and when they got them, you never really knew if they'd drop. This season might just erase several seasons of doubt about Carolina's jumpshooting prowess.
Shooting and guard-dominated play were only a few of the changes in evidence. Team speed was striking, if not on its own merits then certainly in contrast to the deliberate, predictable march upcourt that has dominated in recent years. Passing was crisp, and for a team that has practiced as a unit a mere 19 times before Saturday, it was impressive to see how quickly rebounding players found their outlet and got motoring up court. Dribble penetration was another welcome sign of resurgence. And then there were the dunks. The glorious, authoritative dunks. Don't tell opposing coaches, but those who face the Tar Heels might want to look out for the back cut, particularly if Noel is lost somewhere in the screening action.
Talent can't substitute for experience, but it is difficult not to see a significant upgrade at nearly every position. If you had only seen the Blue-White scrimmage, who would you rather have as your starting shooting guard, sophomore Brian Morrison or sophomore Melvin Scott?
The Tar Heels are a profoundly changed team, and in most cases that is a good thing. But as Doherty leads his young charges into a new era where the three-ball is a legitimate weapon and a seven footer in the post is strictly optional, it would be a shame if eveything from the earlier era was left behind. For the number of sharp passes on Saturday, there was precious little pointing to acknowledge the gift of an assist. For all the impressive team play, there were few instances of that familiar huddle at the foul line. For all the fun that was had on the court and in the stands, was there the chemistry to go with it? There can be no mistake that Doherty is remaking his team so that it can run, pass, and shoot. But it remains to be seen if that team will play hard, play smart, and play together.
But these were minor blemishes on what was otherwise a perfect night of basketball for the fans--exactly what Chapel Hill's faithful needed to put the agonies of last year in the past. Too bad Carolina can't play Carolina every night.
Power move of the night: 6-3 Rashad McCants catches the ball on the low block after posting up 6-8 Will Johnson. McCants sees that no help is coming, takes a quick dribble, and blows right around Johnson, kissing the ball off the glass for two. The play was trouble from the minute McCants caught the ball, and suggested one of Carolina's toughest low post options might just be isolating him against opposing guards.
Dunk of the night: It would have to be something from David Noel, but which one? I suppose the first hammer slam of the evening stands out, if only because it announced to the world that the walk-on was well on his way to erasing all questions about whether he deserved the scholarship Doherty has promised him for next season.
Surprise of the night: If you discount McCants fairly stealthy 36 points--reminiscent of some early high-scoring exploits of one Joseph Forte--it would have to be Noel again. He showed good form on his shot, hitting all of his three-point attempts, rebounded well, and played hard-nosed defense against Jawad Williams, at times making the sophomore look like the less experienced player. If Noel keeps up this level of play in exhibition games, look for him to supplant McCants as the first player off the bench--not because McCants can't play, but because Noel's ability to fill in on the front line is going to be sorely needed.
Disappointment of the night: A tie: Melvin Scott and Byron Sanders, though neither will leave anyone sulking. After scorching the nets at Midnight Madness, Scott cooled off. He looked uncomfortable during warm-ups, and it continued for much of the first half. But Scott did end up with 19 points, 7 assists, and 4 steals against 4 turnovers--a steady performance that should do nothing to hurt his chances to begin the season as Carolina's starting off-guard. Sanders, meanwhile, was the quietest of the freshmen, finishing with four points on 1-8 shooting. More importantly, he looked confused on offense and tentative on defense. Doherty and staff have their work cut out for them in developing post options beyond Sean May.
Interesting stat line of the night: Jon Holmes -- 4-6 FG (2-3 from 3-point range), 11 points, 9 assists, 2 rebounds, 4 turnovers. Not All-ACC numbers, but the kind of decent performance you'd like to see from a senior backup point guard. The turnover numbers were a little high, but if Jon plays within himself during his limited minutes, he can be a valuable contributor this season.
You can email Mark at email@example.com.