North Carolina

Early impressions of UNC basketball after two games

North Carolina’s Nate Britt (0) runs a fast break in the second half against Fairfield on Sunday, November 15, 2015 at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C.
North Carolina’s Nate Britt (0) runs a fast break in the second half against Fairfield on Sunday, November 15, 2015 at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C. rwillett@newsobserver.com

Two games down, 38 more to go. At least, that’d represent the best-case scenario for North Carolina: 40 games.

If they play that many games, that means the Tar Heels advanced to the ACC tournament championship game after a double-bye to start the tournament, and then made it to the NCAA tournament championship on the final night of the season.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. No. 1 UNC has played but two games – a 91-67 victory against Temple in the Veterans Classic this past Friday and then a 92-65 win over Fairfield at the Smith Center on Sunday.

We’re still a few weeks from seeing what this team looks like with Marcus Paige, once he returns after recovering from a broken bone in his hand. And we’re still about a month and a half away from the start of ACC play in late December. As of Tuesday, UNC’s first game against Duke is exactly three months away.

So yes – lots of basketball left to play. But that’s never stopped anyone from some early over-analyzing and jumping to a conclusion or two. So with UNC’s third game upon us Wednesday against Wofford at home, here are some early (very, very early, it must be noted) impressions of the top-ranked Tar Heels:

▪ One of the most important questions that surrounds UNC, amid Paige’s injury, is this: who benefits most from the absence of Paige, the senior point guard who is both the Tar Heels’ best player and most valuable leader? Is it Joel Berry? Or Justin Jackson, with an opportunity to assert himself early?

How about Nate Britt? Through two games no player has benefited more from his expanded opportunity than Britt, who is averaging 16 points per game and shooting 7-for-10 from behind the 3-point line. Those kind of numbers aren’t likely to last. What might last, though: Britt’s confidence that he can play and score at the level he has during the first two games.

When Paige comes back, UNC can’t revert to its tendency to wait for him to make something happen. Britt’s early-season emergence illustrates that he’s a capable shooter and scorer, and that he can come off the bench and provide an instant offensive boost. That could, and should, pay off.

▪ Jackson during his freshman season started slowly before finding his comfort level and his place in the offense during the second half of the season. By this past March, he might have been UNC’s second-best player, behind Paige, and Jackson entered his sophomore season expecting to take a big leap.

It hasn’t quite happened the way he envisioned. He scored four points in the season-opener against Temple. And 11 points – most of them after a quiet first half – against Fairfield. Jackson found his shot late in the season last year and he’ll need to rediscover it again after an 0-for-6 start from behind the 3-point line.

Jackson is one of the Tar Heels’ most important players for this reason: If he goes from good to great this season, his team, you’d think, has an excellent chance to do the same. If he can be counted on for 12 to 16 points per game – a reasonable expectation given the way he ended last season – then UNC becomes incredibly difficult to defend.

Because who do you try to stop, and how? Paige? Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks on the inside? Jackson on the wing? Jackson is off to a relatively quiet start but he shrugged it off after the victory against Fairfield.

“I don’t have any concerns,” he said. “Obviously, I need to shoot it better. Free throws – those are easy ones. I’ve got to knock those down. But there’s not reason to be concerned about anything.”

Jackson is right about the free throws. He’s off to a 1-for-5 start there. But that won’t last, and neither should his mini-slump to start his sophomore season. Even so, the sooner he breaks out of it, the better idea we’ll have of what UNC can look like when Jackson is playing a leading role.

▪ This could be one of UNC’s most balanced teams in years. Through two games, four players are averaging at least 14.5 points per game, and three – Meeks, Johnson and Britt – are averaging between 16 and 16.5 points. Berry, the sophomore point guard, is averaging 14.5.

Then, in the next scoring tier, three more players are averaging between 7 and 9.5 points at the start of the season: Isaiah Hicks, Jackson and Theo Pinson. And this, again, is without Paige, who has led the Tar Heels in scoring in each of the past two seasons.

UNC had elements of this kind of balance toward the end of last season, when Berry and Jackson improved from the perimeter and became reliable shooters. That began happening around mid-February or so, when both players started making shots from the outside consistently.

Berry has carried over that success – he’s off to a 5-for-10 start from the outside. Britt, again, has made 70 percent of his 3-point attempts through two games. And Pinson, who spent a lot of time refining his shot during the off-season, even while recovering from a foot injury, is 3-for-6 on 3-pointers.

Then there’s the interior, where Meeks and Johnson have the potential to form one of the most productive front courts in the nation. Meeks was dominant, albeit against smaller defenders, in the season-opening victory against Temple, when he scored a career-high 25 points. Johnson, meanwhile, has yet to put together a complete game but you wouldn’t know it by his numbers: an average of 16.5 points and 10.5 rebounds through two games.

It’s an extremely small sample size, against two teams that couldn’t compete with UNC’s talent and skill, but the balance has to be exciting for UNC coach Roy Williams. UNC probably hasn’t had this kind of inside-out balance since the 2011-12 season, when it had Tyler Zeller and John Henson on the inside and Harrison Barnes and Reggie Bullock, among others, on the wing.

Meeks and Johnson aren’t as formidable as Zeller and Henson, but this team might have a better collection of shooters. And Paige, who at times the past two seasons has been UNC’s only reliable perimeter shooter, has yet to play.

The game against Wofford isn’t likely to offer the Tar Heels a significant test but, still, it could provide another indication of how the Tar Heels are growing in mid-November.

After Wednesday, UNC will have 37 more games to go. That’s its hope, anyway.

Andrew Carter: 919-829-8944, @_andrewcarter

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