UNC-PSU: The Good & Bad

Welcome to the new era of North Carolina basketball. At least that's what UNC coach Matt Doherty and Tar Heels fans everywhere are thinking right now, and rightfully so.

Led by record-setting performances by Rashad McCants and Raymond Felton and a double double from Sean May, UNC blasted Penn State, 85-55, before a crowd of 16,282 at the Dean E. Smith Center on Monday night.

Here is a look at the good and bad of Carolina's season opening win.

GOOD

Rashad McCants – What can you say about the freshman's debut? He had 28 points, seven rebounds, three assists, two steals, and committed just one foul. He was 11-14 from the field (3-3 from 3-point range) and displayed a nice touch and was smooth in everything he did. He defended well, using his feet to cut off driving paths numerous times. He's an intelligent player and clearly can become the team's leader, despite his youth. A first game can't be any better.

Raymond Felton – Felton is one cool cucumber! He had excellent court awareness, saw the floor well and delivered the ball to open mates. He had 10 assists to go with nine points, grabbed four rebounds and stabilized the Heels offense as a calming influence. His game appears to be a cross between Ed Cota (ballhandler, balance, passing) and Jason (now Jay) Williams (scoring ability, presence, confidence, moxy). His defense was solid, especially considering he went up against a quality Big Ten guard in Brandon Watkins.

Sean May – May immediately gives UNC a presence inside. His moves on the blocks, footwork, release on his jumper, and deceptive quickness was a huge factor against the Lions. He had 17 points, 10 rebounds, two blocked shots, four steals, and was 7-10 from the field. He defended very well down low, altering a lot of shots and taking advantage of his bulk. May also played with tremendous maturity.

Jackie Manuel – Manuel hustled his you-know-what off. The sophomore really went after it defensively and on the glass (six rebounds). He slashed better than a year ago and really made some sweet passes. He played with a lot of confidence, and as perhaps the team's best defender, will be a major contributor.

Jawad Williams – Williams didn't have a great offensive game as he was 3-7 (nine points) from the floor and struggled with the ball at times (two turnovers, tied up a few times). But the 6-foot-9 sophomore really worked hard on the glass (nine rebounds), went after loose balls, and executed his role very well.

Early explosion – The Tar Heels made 10 of their first 12 shots and scored on 12 of their first 15 possessions as they opened up a big early lead. They made a statement right out of the gate that things are different this yea, that the Doherty era is finally here in full form and they are going to be a factor.

Man-to-man defense – The Heels played man-to-man defense for the entire game and really showed excellent judgment in switching and communication. They simply went after it. They played exceptionally hard, never let up, and extended their "D" out to the perimeter, often challenging PSU's respected 3-point game.

Tenacity – The Heels opened the game on fire emotionally but it didn't wane because they balanced it out with a tenacity that lasted most of the game.

Execution – The Heels took a lot of high percentage shots. They were 5-15 from 3-point range (0-7 in the second half) but didn't force but maybe two 3s. Many folks expected the Heels to launch 30-35, and on some nights they might, but they took what was there, getting plenty of layups, dunks, and short shots in the lane.

Rebounding – Carolina outrebounded the Nittany Lions 46-35 despite being smaller and younger. The Heels attacked the boards and utilized positioning and their leaping ability to win the glass war.

Attitude – Another major difference from a year ago. Each of the returning players made reference to this after the game, and it was rather obvious in the team's approach. The young players understand what they are facing and each speaks about getting the program back to where it was for nearly four decades prior to last season. So far so good!

Matt Doherty – Doherty's first two seasons will eventually make him a better coach because of what he learned. And he clearly received an education from last year's disaster, which was partially due to some of his mistakes. But he knows that, and greatness only comes from recognizing where one goes wrong and must improve. Doherty may or may not be on that path, but if Monday night offered any insight, last season will soon be behind him in the media and public's eyes. He now has his style of players, and these kids like playing for him and were very well coached last night. It wasn't a case of just rolling out the ball. The Heels played great man-to-man defense, of which is coached, not something players just pick up. They also executed the motion offense and certain sets at a high level. Again, this is something that is taught.

Necessary win – With UNC's youth, the win meant they get an extra game (Wed. vs. Rutgers), which is very winnable. If they advance to New York the Heels are guaranteed two more games against much higher caliber of competition. In fact, UNC is slated to meet Kansas in the semifinals if both continue to advance. The extra games are crucial in the development of the freshmen, as well as the sophomores who should not be forgotten.

BAD

Ballhandling – The Heels are a better passing than dribbling team right now. In fact, they have the makings to be a super passing squad because the players recognize each other well and are unselfish. But, Manuel (four turnovers) still has trouble putting the ball on the floor for more than a few bounces, Williams doesn't move laterally with the ball well, and even McCants isn't real fluid dribbling yet. This is where Melvin Scott's continued development will be a key for the Heels. Not just his perimeter shooting ability, but he can give the Heels another solid ballhandler to complement Felton, especially holding a lead late in games.

Protecting a lead – Doherty said he asked the team to sort of let up with about 13 minutes left to concentrate on protecting the lead. But the team didn't handle it well and PSU cut a 68-35 deficit to a 71-53 margin with less than six minutes left. He then called timeout and simply told the team to go back out and "play." UNC responded with a 14-0 run.

But, they aren't going to be able to just go out and "play" against top flight ACC teams. Eventually this club must learn to protect a lead. With some suspect ballhandling issues and their basic youth, this aspect of their development may be the difference between making the NCAAs and not.

Penn State – UNC fans should somewhat temper their excitement for the simple fact that Penn State is a terrible team. They would have a tough time beating any ACC teams at home and other than Watkins and Chambliss (held to 3-14 from the field) they don't have any quality ACC or Big Ten caliber players. Remember last year when UNC clobbered Texas A&M to even its record at 5-5 the day before the Peach Bowl? The Aggies were no worse than the Nittany Lions.

Handling their talent – This is directed more at the three sophomores and isn't yet a "bad." But, how will Williams, Manuel and Melvin Scott (just 13 minutes against PSU) handle the publicity and success of the three freshmen? There are no indications of potential trouble, but one must keep an eye on this situation because kids are kids.

At the same time, McCants, Felton, and May can't get swelled heads. Again, there were no indications Monday night they would, but any time freshmen have success early on, it can develop into an issue.

UP NEXT

The Tar Heels next face Rutgers in the second round of the Preseason NIT Wednesday night at the Smith Center. If UNC wins they will advance to the semifinals in New York, where they will play Wednesday before Thanksgiving and, win or lose, will either play for the title or consolation game a week from Friday.


Senior writer Andrew Jones is in his seventh year with Inside Carolina. He hosts a late afternoon radio show on ESPN Radio, WMFD AM630 in Wilmington and can be reached via e-mail at: AndrewJones@AM630.net.

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