Luke DeCock

Tar Heels, in search of new identity, still finding their way

North Carolina’s Luke Maye (32) drives to the basket for two of his game high 17 points against Wake Forest on Saturday, December 30, 2017 at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C.
North Carolina’s Luke Maye (32) drives to the basket for two of his game high 17 points against Wake Forest on Saturday, December 30, 2017 at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C.

What a long, strange season this is going to be for North Carolina, a team with no shortage of talent still in search of an identity.

Joel Berry was asked if Saturday’s ACC opener, a narrow win over Wake Forest, felt like a loss, and given Roy Williams’ frustration and Berry’s general contrition, it was a fair question. It also overlooked the fact that North Carolina scored the final eight points of the game, the key basket a Berry floater in the final minute, lofted into a suborbital trajectory over intimidating Wake Forest big man Doral Moore.

So the Tar Heels dodged a second straight home loss with a 73-69 win over the Demon Deacons and moved to 12-2 on the season and 1-0 in the ACC, thrilled with the results and openly concerned about the process. It’s going to be like that this season. The Tar Heels are going to win a lot of games. They’re also going to struggle to figure out what kind of team they are, because it’s a roster full of round pieces for square holes.

North Carolina is at its best when it goes small and struggles when it tries to play the way that coach Roy Williams likes it to play, primarily because its most poised and experienced players are on the perimeter and its young post players aren’t ready for prime time. Watching the tug and pull between those two conflicting realities is going to be fascinating -- and fun, considering the talent on display.

Because of the latter, it’s probably not going to slow North Carolina down that much. It’s a good problem to have when the lineup that works the best – a perimeter-oriented combination of Luke Maye, the newly available Cameron Johnson, Theo Pinson, Kenny Williams and Berry – happens to be the one Williams apparently likes the least. It goes against all of his usual precepts, but he just doesn’t have the big men – yet – to play his preferred lineup with two post players and win.

So he played the dominant five-out lineup at the end of both halves because he “trusted them more,” and it locked down the win, but it has yet to win Williams’ approval.

“I wish I had a lineup that I liked, because I did not see one out there,” Williams said.

It’s a little like 2014, when Williams struggled to find a lineup he liked, eventually settling on freshman Kennedy Meeks in the frontcourt with James Michael McAdoo. That team was loaded with talented young big men who weren’t ready for the ACC but, having all now departed North Carolina, are household names. Meeks. Brice Johnson. Isaiah Hicks. The freshmen on that team have rings now. So do the upperclassmen on this team, which appears considerably better than that one was, the Wofford loss 10 days ago notwithstanding.

Because North Carolina has so many famous players who returned from that national title team, it’s easy to overlook how many are actually new. And Williams can’t yet count on Garrison Brooks or Sterling Manley or Brandon Huffman on a regular basis the way he would have counted on Tony Bradley if he had returned.

“We’ve got (seven) new guys and (six) of them never played in an ACC game,” Pinson said. “They don’t understand how every night is going to be a grind.”

The lack of ACC readiness among the big men has bigger implications than lineups. The inability to go inside for an easy basket (or trip to the foul line) was a critical defect in the loss to Wofford, and there was some of that Saturday as well. Maye, for all his offensive ability, is not a great back-to-the-basket post scorer. The Tar Heels don’t have a reliable post option on offense.

The corresponding lack of a defensive presence in the lane was brought into sharp relief by Moore’s work under the basket for Wake Forest, blocking five shots and altering countless more, to the point where Berry was acutely aware of the obstacle he faced on the game’s most important basket. The Tar Heels, meanwhile, gave up almost as many unobstructed layups as they did uncontested 3-point attempts at the other end.

“I know we don’t have John Henson or somebody like that, but whew,” Williams said.

Such is his lament this season. It’s not a typical North Carolina team, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a good one. The Wofford loss was a symptom of a team trying to figure out what it is when it isn’t what it usually is. The Wake Forest win was a sign that it’s starting to make sense.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947,, @LukeDeCock

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