Nate Britt wasn’t starting for North Carolina earlier this season, not exactly, but he was playing starter’s minutes as the team’s first player off the bench: 25 minutes in the Tar Heels’ season-opener against Temple, 23 the game after that, then 27 and so on.
And then Marcus Paige, the senior guard, made his season debut against Maryland and Britt played only 10 minutes. Paige wanted to make sure Britt was OK, that he was handling well the adjustment to his role.
“He just wanted to make sure where my head was, that I was good with it,” Britt said on Sunday, after he scored 17 points to help lead the Tar Heels to a 98-65 victory against Davidson.
Eight games into a season that began with grand aspirations 10th-ranked UNC is beginning to take shape. The Tar Heels (7-1) are starting to show their potential, what with the return of Paige, and with his teammates becoming readjusted to his presence.
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UNC played its first six games of the season without Paige, who scored 20 points in his season debut in that victory against Maryland. Now the Tar Heels have played two games with him, including the easy, impressive victory on Sunday against Davidson (6-1), which is among the favorites in the Atlantic 10.
The Wildcats arrived in the Smith Center having won their first five games. Jack Gibbs, their junior guard, had scored 41 points in their most recent victory.
But Davidson, so reliant on shots from the perimeter, struggled to make the outside shot on Sunday. And when they missed, it often led to a long rebound. And the Tar Heels often turned those into points.
“We had good defensive activity early, and long shots translate to long rebounds, and that kind of helped start the break,” said Paige, who finished with 13 points. “It’s a lot easier to start the break when the ball doesn’t go through the basket.”
So that was one thing that flustered Davidson: its inability to make perimeter shots, and how often its misses turned into points going the other way. UNC outscored Davidson 26-9 in fast-break points. The Tar Heels controlled the game, too, with their balance.
Britt and Paige were two of three UNC players who scored in double figures. Justin Jackson, the sophomore forward, had 15 points, while forward Brice Johnson scored 13 and Joel Berry, the sophomore point guard, 11.
The backcourt trio of Paige, Berry and Britt provided a glimpse of their combined capability. Paige and Berry combined for eight assists, while Britt came off the bench and made six of his eight attempts from the field in 16 minutes.
Roy Williams, the UNC coach, described Britt as a “microwave” during the first half. Perhaps because of Britt’s ability to enter the game and provide a spark – or some heat, as it were.
“Last year is the first year we changed him over from left to right hand,” Williams said, referencing Britt’s change in shooting hands. “And I think if you ask anybody on our team or coach (Hubert) Davis or anyone, the two guys that worked the hardest on their shot in the off-season were Joel Berry and Nate Britt.
“And it shows up during the season.”
UNC played so well, so early, that the game wasn’t close for long. The Tar Heels led by as many as 25 during the first half and led 47-24 at halftime. During the second half, Davidson, which made eight of its 31 3-point attempts, never cut UNC’s lead to fewer than 20 points.
The margin allowed Williams to experiment with his lineups, and to afford more playing time to players who often see less time on the court. Eleven of Williams’ players were in the game for at least eight minutes, including freshmen Luke Maye and Kenny Williams.
The performance of UNC’s backcourt, though, was likely the most promising aspect of a game that didn’t lack for Tar Heels’ highlights. Paige’s teammates had to adjust to his absence earlier this season, and then had to readjust to his return.
Britt’s playing time has been reduced. Berry’s role is different. Even Paige’s role is different than it was a season ago, because he’s playing more shooting guard than point guard. Collectively, though, Paige, Berry and Britt are showing in early December what might be possible in mid-February, or beyond.
“We want balance,” Paige said, after UNC had plenty of it on Sunday. “We don’t want it concentrated all within a couple of guys. On any given night, we want four and five guys in double figures, because that means we have a balanced attack that’s harder to guard.”