Just three years removed from its Division II national title, Barton came to Chapel Hill intent on running with the Heels, and for the first few minutes of the first half, kept the game close and gave their large contingent of fans in the Smith Center a reason to get loud.
Barton trailed just 14-12 heading into the first media timeout, but a 12-0 run started the rout as the Heels stretched the lead to 25 points in the first half before a Barton three cut the margin to 57-35 at the break.
The second half proved more of the same as the Heels kept the smaller Bulldogs in the rear view, leading 100-54 at the 4:56 mark on a breakaway dunk by Alabama transfer Justin Knox.
Tyler Zeller led the Heels with 25 points and four blocks. John Henson’s 11 rebounds were a team high while freshman Kendall Marshall’s nine assists paced the trio of Carolina point guards.
Freshman Harrison Barnes struggled in his first game action as a Tar Heel, scoring seven points on just 2-9 shooting and recording six turnovers. Reggie Bullock came of the bench to give the Heels 10 points, but struggled from the field as well.
“The freshmen, Reggie and Harrison, I talk about how well they shoot it and they have ‘freshman-itis’ and go 1-for-9 from the three point line,” Roy Williams said following the win, “But I’m not really concerned about that point.
“If I’m worried about Harrison Barnes, man I’m a lucky guy.”
Gerald Boston led Barton with 20 points, but 15 of those came in the first half as the Tar Heel size wore down the Bulldogs.
What Difference a Year Makes
It’s just an exhibition, but one thing was certain from the start - Dexter Strickland and Leslie McDonald looked more comfortable on the court that at any time last season. While the freshmen struggled, the sophomores' effort was the highlight of what Coach Williams referred to as a “glorified scrimmage.”
Strickland started opposite Larry Drew II in the backcourt and took advantage of his time off the basketball to showcase the skills that earned him the high praise from recruiting pundits in high school
“It’s off the ball and being a sophomore,” Strickland said when asked about his confidence, “Experience alone will give you confidence ... last year was a learning process for me.”
Dean Smith always pointed to the jump his players made between their freshman and sophomore year, and while it’s one game and only Barton, Strickland’s play will be key for this team to succeed.
“Dexter is going to be a big time threat for us with his speed and his defensive capabilities,” Williams said.
Ditto for McDonald, as he came off the bench to score 12 points in just 15 minutes of action.
“Leslie did some nice things for us tonight and he has the ability to score,” Williams commented, “He can get up more shots quicker than anyone I’ve ever seen ... nine shots in 15 minutes.”
McDonald’s points came on a variety of baskets, but first half dunks brought the biggest grins from the Memphis sophomore in the postgame interviews.
“This year I am coming in with a focus,” McDonald said. “I am not nervous or thinking about the crowd, I’m not thinking about mistakes. I am just thinking about contributing to my team.
“It feels good to get my lift back. Last year I couldn’t really jump, but now I have my strength back and it feels good.”
The Need for Speed
Carolina’s 108 points marked just the second time in 2010 the Heels had scored 80 points in a game - the other being the 80-72 win over William & Mary in last season’s NIT. Zeller’s free throws with 11:40 left put the Heels up 80-40.
Against Barton, Carolina reeled off 26 fast break points while holding the Bulldogs scoreless on the break. Those baskets helped the Heels shoot 54 percent from the field for the night.
Coach Williams’s philosophy to run was tested last season and their inability to score in the halfcourt magnified those issues. With Will Graves gone, this season’s success will rely on Carolina’s ability to get out in transition for easy baskets, at least early on.
Finding the Muscle
Zeller provides the points in the paint. Henson cleans up the glass and gets the garbage baskets. But who can Roy Williams rely on to do the dirty work?
The obvious choice is Justin Knox. Knox’s eight-point and four-rebound night was average for the senior. But he’ll need to step up that those numbers and stay out of foul trouble as the season progresses and roles are more accurately defined.
“It's very early on, and you can't define a lot yet, but everybody knows their role,” Zeller said of the inside play. “[Justin] Knox can play better than he did tonight - he played well tonight but I think he can be even more explosive and have more of an impact.”
The other “Justin” - Justin Watts - is going to help in the post as well. He was UNC's first substitute off the bench, and entered as the power forward. And being 6-4 didn’t seem to make any difference on where he can contribute.
“I went to Justin and asked 'Would you like to play the four spot some and if you do, you’ll get more minutes?'” Williams recalled. “If you want to play you can play.”
Watts was willing. “I was fine with it," he said. "I told Coach I didn’t have a problem playing the four. When you are on the court, you are a basketball player so it’s not really specific positions. The offense we run is inside-outside and he gives me a little bit of freedom. I try to do what he asks me to do.”
His teammates have noticed him thriving in the surprise role. “He’s a big guy - he’s very strong," Strickland said. "I think next to Justin Knox, he’s the strongest on the team. For him to move to that position, it’s not that tough for him and as you guys can see, he’s doing a great job.”
On a young team that lacks post depth, a guy like Watts could be invaluable down the road.