It's fair to say that the Tar Heels' national ranking was based purely on potential, and there was plenty of potential on display Friday night. At this point, however, UNC is in the baby step mode of elevating its play to a top-25 level.
There was plenty of defensive effort paired with a lack of offensive chemistry. There were freshmen playing like freshmen with glimpses of future success. And there were veterans trying to adapt to new roles following the departure of four starters from last season's dominant squad.
North Carolina shot 53.1 percent from the floor, yet missed 11 of its 12 3-point attempts. The Tar Heels outrebounded Gardner-Webb 48-32, including a 22-9 edge on the offensive glass, but had more turnovers (18) than assists (14). UNC scored 52 points in the paint, but needed 45 shots to reach that total.
Don't forget UNC's effort from the free throw line - 47.4 percent on 9-of-19 shooting.
"I'm disappointed in how we played, but I'm not disappointed in my team," Roy Williams told reporters following the game. "I think it was a good night for us. I think we learned a lot and hopefully we'll be able to do some things [Saturday] morning at practice to help us get better."
The highlight, of course, was James Michael McAdoo's career performance in his first role as North Carolina's headliner. The sophomore forward posted career-highs with 26 points and 14 rebounds, but even his evening wasn't flawless. His athleticism and hustle yielded those totals more so than fundamentals in the post, although he deserves plenty of credit for embracing his new role.
"I'm just going out there and working with the minutes that I get, just trying to help the team win," McAdoo said. "If I need to score, I've got to score. If I need to be a defensive stopper, if I need to get a rebound, just doing what I have to do to be productive out there and helping the team win.
Reggie Bullock, on the other hand, struggled at times in his first game in making the transition from a complementary option to a primary one. The junior wing tallied nine rebounds, three assists and three steals against just one turnover, but scored just five points on 2-of-4 shooting.
"Reggie was almost unselfish to a fault tonight," Williams said, noting three different possessions where Bullock had an open shot but didn't take it. "He's got to take a couple more of those shots and guys have got to be willing to screen for him to get him open, too."
Bullock acknowledged the transition has been an adjustment.
"It's been difficult a little bit, but at the same time, I feel like if I just lose myself in the game, my scoring is going to come," Bullock said.
The offseason talk was that the Tar Heels would have to become more of a perimeter-oriented team due to inexperience and youth in the post, but that line of thinking was debunked on Friday. Leslie McDonald and P.J. Hairston combined for a 3-of-12 shooting night, including a 0-of-6 effort from 3-point range.
Add Bullock to the mix and the trio combined to shoot 1-of-9 from behind the arc.
"I've been saying with Reggie and Leslie and P.J. that we're a good shooting team – 1-for-12 from the 3-point line doesn't look like it," Williams said.
The 10th-year UNC head coach answered the lingering question regarding his starting lineup roughly 30 minutes prior to the tip when the school announced that sophomore Desmond Hubert would get the nod in the post, but it quickly became clear that freshmen Joel James and Brice Johnson have more upside on the interior.
Hubert (4 rebs, 2 TOs) was ineffective on both ends of the floor, but James (6 pts, 4 rebs) and Johnson (6 pts, 5 rebs) showed promise while at the same time playing like freshmen. James picked up four fouls in his first 11 minutes of play before finishing with 14 minutes.
Marcus Paige's assist-turnover ratio may be disconcerting (0 asts, 4 TOs) at first glance, although Williams indicated that his freshman point guard notched several assists in the UNC method of attribution and highlighted Gardner-Webb's zone as a point of difficulty.
Williams then dismissed any further criticism with a statement of praise: "He's a freshman and he's going to be really good."
Williams provided some insight into his initial thoughts on how his freshman class played in its first college game.
"Marcus made some mistakes, but I thought he was in charge out there," Williams said. "I think he learned some things tonight. J.P. [Tokoto] didn't play many minutes – 10 minutes – but he's an active body.
"I thought Joel and Brice were so much better in the first half than they were in the second half. Perhaps they got winded a little bit, but Gardner-Webb went small a little more so we had Brice or somebody guarding one of their perimeter players out there on the court. I think all four of the guys gave us something and I'm hopeful it will be something that we can grow on."
Finally, in a game with so many positives and negatives seemingly available for a variety of takes, it was Dexter Strickland that quite possibly delivered the most consistent performance. Despite Williams suppressing expectations for his senior guard during the offseason while rehabbing from ACL surgery, Strickland appeared to be back to full health, scoring 13 points, dishing out three assists and forcing three steals that helped spark UNC's transition game.
"I think we have to be more aggressive," Strickland said. "I think we were aggressive in the beginning, but not enough. We played well in the second half. We pretty much figured out what they were trying to do on defense and when they went into the zone, it was a challenge to us because we're not really used to zone.
"But it's a learning process; it's our first game. I think everybody handled it well."
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