Raymond Felton – Felton scored 18 points, handed out seven assists and committed only two turnovers. He showed leadership in the second half trying to put the Heels on his back in a comeback attempt. Some of the moves the freshman displayed when penetrating were breathtaking. Maybe he should have kicked the ball out more or attempted more 3s, but his efforts deserve positive recognition.
Rashad McCants – McCants is a scoring machine. Even when it doesn't appear he is a big part of UNC's offensive flow he still manages 22 points, like in this loss. He also handed out four assists and didn't commit a turnover. His patience, and, other than one field goal attempt, shot selection was excellent. For a player with flair, he knows how to let the game come to him. He floats well, often losing his man. When McCants improves his ballhandling, he will be a great, great player.
Damion Grant – The big freshman got some quality playing time and performed well. He's not expected to come in an dominate offensively, but if he can give UNC 7-10 minutes a game of solid defense and rebounding, he will be a tremendous asset. He had an effective five minutes on Saturday, although he didn't score or take a shot, had no rebounds and committed two fouls. But he forced UK to kick the ball out to the perimeter a few times and altered their movement. At 6-foot-11 and 265 pounds, Grant gives UNC a presence that Byron Sanders doesn't. UNC could use both players to contribute.
Jonathan Holmes – Holmes hit a huge 3-pointer in each of the last two contests, tying the Illinois game at 35 and the UK game at 20 after UNC battled back from an 8-0 deficit. Playing with a lot of confidence, he has accepted his role. He also gave the Heels quality minutes defensively, a weakness of his in the past. The more comfortable Matt Doherty is with Holmes and rewards him with a few more minutes, the fresher Felton will be at the end of close games.
First half offense – The Heels were pretty sharp in the first half. They shot 50 percent (18-36) from the floor and 42.0% (6-14) from 3-point range. The flow was solid and the Heels took quality shots. Felton and McCants combined for seven first-half assists.
Rebounding – UNC outrebounded UK 35-30 – 14-7 on the offensive end. Carolina was aggressive and did a nice job keeping the taller 'Cats off the glass. The 14 offensive boards have to be particularly pleasing to Doherty. Continued results will mean another victory or two. However, UK likely would have had more offensive boards had they actually missed more shots. In fact, the 'Cats missed just 11 field goals in the second half and had four offensive rebounds. Regardless, UNC won the rebounding battle, and that alone is a positive.
Defense – Illinois pounded Carolina with its effective hi-low game. Kentucky handled the Heels with its ball movement, perimeter shooting, and various inside looks for easy layups and short jumpers. UNC's defense was solid in the first half, even though UK shot 52% from the field. The veteran Wildcats did an excellent job of getting looks, and knocking down contested shots. But in the second half, UK had its way with the Heels.
Due largely to Carolina's foul trouble, especially to Felton and Sean May, perhaps the most crucial members of UNC's defense as the point guard and center, Kentucky scored seemingly at will inside. And the few times UNC stopped them, the 'Cats hit 3-pointers. In fact, UK was 10-16 from 3-point range – 5-8 in each half. Overall, the Wildcats were 35-58 (60.3 percent) from the field, and an amazing 22-33 (66.7%) in the second half. Add 18-25 from the free throw line and no wonder they overcame being outrebounded and having more turnovers (16) than assists (15). UK's 14-0 run that turned a 45-44 UNC lead into a 58-45 Kentucky lead took just 2:32.
The Heels had tremendous success defensively in their first five games, but have struggled in the last two, giving up 190 points in the losses. Carolina still had 10 steals against UK, but their inability to be as aggressive defensively was its eventual undoing.
Half court offense – The Heels did manage 81 points, but went through some real ugly stretches again, especially with its half court offense. The Heels are excellent in the open court, but a consistent lack of movement without the ball, predictable offensive moves from certain players, and gross inability to handle the ball more than a few dribbles by many regulars makes them mediocre at best in the half court. The Heels are a fine passing team and if they screened, went backdoor and ran flashes through the lane (perfect for McCants) more often, it would enhance their productivity. Odds are UNC will add similar branches to the offense. And with the team being so young, one can't expect them to have everything down already.
Late decisions – Just like in the Illinois game, the Heels made some poor decisions with the ball late in the loss to UK. There were too many rushed shots when the Tar Heels needed a quality look as they attempted to cut into Kentucky's lead. For example, Byron Sanders' second-half attempt couldn't possibly have been the team's first option. Jawad Williams and others also took poor shots. Even Felton's insistence on penetrating would have been more useful had he kicked the ball out to the perimeter a few more times, especially considering the deficit UNC faced.
Bad starts – UNC didn't score for the first 4:08 of the game and trailed 8-0 before a runner by Felton. Carolina had just two baskets in the first 5:05 of the second half as a 43-40 halftime lead turned into a 59-47 deficit.
Jawad Williams – Williams had a terrible day, scoring eight points and grabbing only four rebounds while coughing up six turnovers. He was just 3-9 from the field and only attempted a pair of free throws. He also appeared a bit slow on defense. Everyone has bad days in anything they attempt. This was just one for Williams. Don't expect many similar performances.
Matt Doherty – Doherty has done an excellent job with this young team. They are well coached and he has their attention. But he didn't use the bench enough in the second half on Saturday. May played 19 minutes in the second half, and, as he admitted, the foul trouble affected his aggressiveness on defense. Since Grant gave UNC some solid minutes defensively in the first half, perhaps giving him four or five minutes in the second half would have made a difference. Doherty could have given Holmes or David Noel more minutes for defensive purposes.
Holmes certainly isn't a great defensive player, but he could have scrambled and taken more chances than Felton, who picked up his fourth foul early in the second half. Noel would have been perfect to use when trapping. But with McCants picking up four fouls in the first 14 minutes in the second period and the Heels in major foul trouble, UNC was unable to chase the ball, trap, or aggressively try to create turnovers. The Tar Heels needed offense, but with the 'Cats scoring nearly at will, stopping them was paramount.
Plus, the regulars looked tired toward the end of the game. A few extra minutes on the bench would have made a big difference.
Free throws – The Tar Heels were an awful 8-16 from the charity stripe. As disappointing as the free throw accuracy is that UNC again attempted fewer free throws than the opposition. Three times (Old Dominion, Kansas, UK) the opposition has attempted more free throws, and UNC took just one more than Illinois. The Heels not only need to improve their FT shooting, but also get to the line more often. UNC is shooting 65.9 percent from the FT line for the season, a number that should be no less than 70 percent.
Crowd – Kudos to the fans for coming, especially after such a difficult week with the amazing ice storm. However, at no time were the fans a sixth man, and they had plenty of opportunities to make their presence felt, especially when UNC was down in the second half needing defensive stops. You could hear a pen drop in the Dean Dome. The end of last season was indeed nine months ago, but have the fans actually forgotten this quickly? The youthful Heels need the fans behind them, to be a sixth man, especially when the team is trying to come from behind. It's great the place was full, but the fans need to do their part. However, being full is certainly progress.
Because of final exams, the Tar Heels are off until Dec. 19 when they welcome the Catamounts of Vermont to Chapel Hill. Game time is 7 p.m. and will be televised by various regional sports networks.
Senior writer Andrew Jones is in his seventh year with Inside Carolina. He hosts a late afternoon radio show on ESPN Radio, WMFD AM630 in Wilmington and can be reached via e-mail at: AndrewJones@AM630.net.