One of the stories of North Carolina's 95-75 season-opening victory at Tulane on Friday was that Isaiah Hicks played foul-free basketball for the first 18 minutes he was on the court. Given Hicks' importance to this team, and his proclivity for fouling so much, that's a great sign for the Tar Heels. I wrote about that here.
Some other thoughts, notes and quotes after UNC's season-opening victory, New Orleans food recommendation included:
1. On starting the right way …
It's early, way early, but UNC probably couldn't have drew up a better opening-game performance. Keep in mind the Tar Heels were going to win on Friday night. That was never in debate, never in doubt against Tulane, picked to finish last among the 11 teams in the American Athletic Conference. And so regardless of how victory came about, it was going to happen.
But it's the way it happened that had to be encouraging for UNC coach Roy Williams. Some of the big questions that surround UNC at the start of the season were answered in the affirmative on Friday night: Will Joel Berry, Justin Jackson and Isaiah Hicks significantly raise their scoring output to replace lost production? Yes. Will Hicks avoid foul trouble? Yes. Will Tony Bradley contribute? Yes.
Again: it's one game. Against a team that's expected to be pretty bad. But the Tar Heels easily could have slogged their way through it, won by 10 or 13 points, called it a day and moved on. Instead, Jackson (27 points) and Berry (23) scored more than 20 points in the same game for the first time; Hicks didn't commit a foul in the first half and Bradley were sharp in their supporting roles.
“I think that a lot of people expect me and Justin to step a lot and I think you saw that tonight. And Isaiah stepping into the starting lineup, that's going to give us something and then I just think – it's too early right now to say that but I think that we do have the pieces even though we lost two big-time players. I think that we still have the pieces to be able to do what we did last year.”
2. On Tony Bradley …
People are probably going to over-hype Bradley's debut – remember folks: one game, against an over-matched opponent – but it's safe to say that he's going to be good, and could eventually be great. Bradley played 17 minutes and finished with 10 points and five rebounds and made five of his seven attempts from the field. He also committed four fouls, which cut into his playing time.
To put Bradley's first college game in some context, I went back four years and reviewed how Brice Johnson fared in his. Against Gardner Webb on Nov. 9, 2012 – I'm getting old, by the way – Johnson finished with six points in 12 minutes, after making three of his six attempts. The next game, though, against Florida Atlantic, Johnson scored 12 points on 5-of-9 shooting in 12 minutes.
So, Bradley like. Or, should I say, a Johnson-like start for Bradley. They’re not identical players, by the way, but their skill sets are close enough. Johnson, it's important to remember, faded the second half of his freshman season. He didn't score in double figures after Jan. 10 that year. This year, the hope is that Bradley gets better and better as the season goes on, and that's the hope for two reasons:
First, UNC doesn't have a lot of options in the post – it's just Kennedy Meeks, Hicks and Bradley there, folks – so it needs Bradley to be good. Second, Meeks has had his share of problems in the second half of the season in each of the past two years. We're getting ahead of ourselves, again. But it was a nice debut for Bradley, especially offensively. And defensively?
“I don't think he knows how many shots he can block, or how many shots he can bother yet,” Hicks said. “Sooner or later he'll figure it out.”
3. On Justin Jackson …
Each returning player entered the season with at least one significant question surrounding him: Can Berry provide the consistent leadership that's needed? Can Hicks stop fouling so much? Can Meeks avoid slumping down the stretch? For Jackson the question was: Can he find his shooting touch from the outside?
So far, so good. He finished with 27 points, more than he'd ever scored in a college game, but it was the way those points came –12 of them from behind the 3-point line – that made the scoring outburst all the more encouraging for UNC. Jackson made fewer than 30 percent of his 3-point attempts last season. He went through long, difficult shooting slumps, knowing he possessed the ability to shoot well from the outside.
What he did on Friday has to be a mental boost. It was the first time he'd made four 3-pointers in a game since his freshman season, when he did it in a victory against Virginia in the semifinals of the 2015 ACC tournament. And so a repeat of that had been a long time coming.
--If you're curious about why UNC coach Roy Williams started Kenny Williams, the sophomore guard, here's Roy explaining it: “Just felt like it was something I was probably going to do. Had no idea. Felt like I'd let the staff vote, and it was 2-2, and I made the decision. Pretty easy deal. And I really had intended to change the lineup at halftime, but I was chewing on it a little bit and got out there a little late and didn't do it.”
--That Kenny Williams started wasn't a surprise, necessarily. It was, somewhat, in the sense that Roy Williams usually defers to older players. Yet there's some comfort to be had in bringing Nate Britt, and his wealth of his experience, off the bench.
--Meeks finished with 15 rebounds but, as Roy noted afterward, Meeks' rebounding total was a bit skewed. He missed nine of his 13 attempts from the field, with many of those misses coming at close range. And so there were rebounding opportunities available to him. Williams the coach said he was “really mad” at Meeks for missing so many shots. “And I want him to get the ball and shoot it quicker instead of holding it so long and drawing a crowd,” Williams said.
--Next time you're in New Orleans, do yourself a favor and head on over to the Diamond Street Bar and Grill in the Lower Garden District, not far from the World War II Museum (also a must). Order the bbq shrimp. Feast on enormous gulf shrimp (an oxymoron, perhaps), which come on the plate with everything still attached. You know it's legit New Orleans seafood if you're pulling the heads off your shrimp.
The Tar Heels continue the season on Sunday against Chattanooga.