No. 1 North Carolina didn’t look like a team that knew it was playing an exhibition game against an NCAA Division II opponent on Friday night.
If junior guard Caleb Love was taking the Golden Bulls lightly, he wouldn’t have been diving on the floor for a loose ball in the first half. Junior forward Armando Bacot wouldn’t have gone after every rebound to the tune of collecting 20 in 23 minutes of play. And the Tar Heels most certainly wouldn’t have routed Johnson C. Smith University 101-40 on Friday despite playing a bit shorthanded.
“It just shows our growth and our maturity as a team because probably early in the season last year, you wouldn’t have seen much of that,” Bacot said. “But we all hungry and we all got the same goals. We just kind of know what and how intense we got to be to win and go far, so that’s really what we were trying to show.”
The Heels played without starting junior guard RJ Davis, who has a sprained right hand. Senior forward Justin McKoy, non-Covid illness; junior forward Puff Johnson, right knee soreness; and freshman forward Jalen Washington also missed the game. Washington has been cleared for full contact in practice, but is being cautiously brought along while still rehabilitating a knee injury from high school.
UNC head coach Hubert Davis said all four would be available for the regular season opener on Nov. 7 against UNC Wilmington.
Davis said he scheduled the game with JCSU because both of his parents attended the NCAA Division II school in Charlotte. Hubert Davis Sr., played basketball for the Golden Bulls from 1965-69 and averaged 10.8 points per game and 5.4 rebounds.
At halftime of the game, Carolina honored its 1997 and 1998 Final Four teams.
Here’s what we learned from the exhibition:
Bench has expanded
Davis has lamented through the offseason about how tired the Heels looked in the national title game, and this season he’d use the bench differently to avoid that from happening again.
“There were two games, Virginia Tech in the ACC tournament and the national championship game, where I felt like we were a little bit tired,” Davis said. “One of the things that I want, but this year one of the things I think we have, is we have depth. We have a number of guys that can step on the floor and make big plays on both ends of the floor.”
Davis only used eight players until their lead reached 40 points, but considering D’Marco Dunn started in place of RJ Davis and Johnson will likely be one of their top reserves, Carolina could go 10 deep.
Freshman guard Seth Trimble and sophomore forward Dontrez Styles were the first two off the bench, followed by freshman forward Tyler Nickel. Trimble had 11 points and five assists while Dunn and Nickel combined to shoot 4-for-10 from 3-point range.
Leaky Black joked that last season’s tendency to play the “Iron Five” starters big minutes are gone.
“There’s like a part of me that doesn’t really want it to be over, but then again a part of me it’s like bittersweet,” Black said. “It’s just gonna take some getting used to coming in and out like that. Like I said, it is a blessing, just having more guys that can go in there and give us a bump. I’m just trying to win, I don’t care who is out there.”
Bacot and Love were as advertised
Part of the reason Carolina was voted preseason No. 1 in the polls was due to the return of Love and Bacot.
Hubert Davis told reporters on Thursday that he thought Love could lead the ACC in assists this season. Love showed why Davis has that belief, dishing out a game-high eight assists.
“He’d been challenging me every day to lead the league in assists and that’s what I’ve been working on each and every day, each and every practice,” Love said. “So just going out there seeing it come into fruition, it was great.”
Love also scored a game-high 20 points that included a 4-for-9 outing from 3-point range.
Bacot had already secured a double-double in the first half. He finished with 20 rebounds and 12 points. Bacot showed off his improved ball handling skills, several times advancing the ball up the floor after grabbing a rebound.
Nance fits right in
With the departure of Brady Manek, it is fair to wonder how Northwestern graduate transfer Pete Nance will transition into the starting lineup. And considering Hubert Davis said he didn’t install their freelance offense specifically for a zone defense until Thursday, Nance didn’t appear to have any problems.
He finished with 19 points on 8 of 13 shooting from the field and grabbed six rebounds.
“They really embraced me into the team and just made it a real easy, seamless transition for me,” Nance said. “So, I think being able to play with these guys in practice and get our chemistry up, I feel like it’s in a really good place. And I think that just came through a little bit tonight.”
This story was originally published October 28, 2022 9:24 PM.