Welcome to Maui: Questions face UNC in Hawaii

Staff writerNovember 19, 2012 

ON THE ISLAND OF MAUI, Hawaii — And welcome, loyal readers, to the west coast of Maui, where I awoke this morning to the smell of the Pacific Ocean and the sound of waves crashing on rocks.

But enough about me.

You’re here to read about North Carolina, and there will be plenty for me to write about during the coming days while the Tar Heels compete in the Maui Invitational.The Heels during their visit will have a bit of time to enjoy the surroundings but this, said more than one UNC player, has the feel of a business trip.

UNC is here for the third time in coach Roy Williams’ tenure, and both of the previous two trips, in 2004 and 2008, ended in championships. The Heels, of course, won national championships later on in both those seasons, too. But this, as has been noted many, many times, is a completely different UNC team.

Early during the 2004-05 and 08-9 seasons, we knew the Tar Heels were good. After three games, we really don’t know much about UNC this season aside from the fact that the Heels can play sloppily and still win relatively comfortably against overmatched competition.

The Maui Invitational traditionally has a strong field, though the Heels are the only ranked team here this year. But still, if UNC beats Mississippi State today, both Butler and Marquette would provide a quality test on Tuesday. On the other side of the bracket, are Texas (which UNC plays on the road in December), USC and Illinois.

Here’s a look at UNC’s path to the Maui Invitational championship in 2004 and ’08:

2004:

--Beat BYU 86-50

--Beat Tennessee 94-81

--Beat Iowa 106-92

2008:

--Beat Chaminade 115-70

--Beat Oregon 98-69

--Beat Notre Dame 102-87

I’ll save you the math: That’s an average margin of victory of 25.3 points for UNC.

Before this long trip west, I asked Williams what he hoped to learn about this team. His answer: Everything.

Here are some things I’m interested to learn during the coming days:

--Who is the fifth starter?

Williams has stuck with the same starting five in each of UNC’s first three games. Four of those positions seem set, but one is unquestionably open. Desmond Hubert has started all three games for the Heels, but Hubert has yet to score a point this season. Williams is a Hall of Fame coach, so it’s safe to assume he knows what he’s doing. Even so, Joel James, the freshman, has clearly outplayed Hubert early on. It seems that it’s only a matter of time before James starts. Does that time come here in Maui?

--Are the Heels really a good shooting team?

With a lack of depth and proven production in the post, UNC needs to shoot well from the perimeter to reach its potential as an offense. Shooting carried the Heels to victory at Long Beach State, and the 10 3-pointers that UNC made were its most since a victory at N.C. State last February. The performance at Long Beach, though, came after two woeful performances from the outside in victories against Gardner-Webb and Florida Atlantic. So are the Heels going to be a reliable team from the perimeter this season or not?

--Will Dexter Strickland start to assert himself offensively?

We know Strickland can defend. We know he’s a capable penetrator. What he wants us to know is that he can be a consistent scorer. He entered the season wanting to prove that, and had a solid debut with 13 points against Gardner-Webb. Since, though, Strickland has finished with four in back-to-back games. It’s clear that James Michael McAdoo and Reggie Bullock are the Heels’ first two scoring options, but right now there’s no clear No. 3. It’s open for the taking, and Strickland would love to be that guy.

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