If you were looking for lean, athletic length on Friday night, the Dean E. Smith Center was the place to find it. Division II Belmont Abbey arrived in Chapel Hill with two players on its roster north of 6-foot-5 – Chad Patus and Kyle Phillips both stand 6-foot-8 – and so the hilarity in the discrepancy between these two programs was evident at the tip. Six Tar Heels listed at 6-foot-9 or taller played significant minutes in the program’s lone exhibition contest of the 2009-10 season.
Thompson, Ed Davis (13 points, six rebounds) and Tyler Zeller (17 points, six rebounds) combined for 53 of UNC’s 107 points in an offensive effort geared toward forcing the ball into the post. Guard Marcus Ginyard also delivered a strong stat line, totaling nine points, six assists, four steals and two blocks.
The Crusaders kept it reasonably close early before the Tar Heels utilized a 15-2 run to end the half with a 57-31 lead.
UNC head coach Roy Williams referred to the game as a “glorified practice” in his postgame press conference, which was evident in the various personnel groupings that he toyed with during the contest. Larry Drew and Will Graves joined Thompson, Davis and Ginyard in the starting lineup, but rotation changes included playing David Wear at the 3-spot along with Ginyard seeing time at point guard.
“I like the fact that we got 12 players at least  minutes,” Williams said. “That was a goal going in to give a lot of guys a chance to run out there in front of a crowd so they would hopefully lose some of that nervousness.”
The Tar Heels shot 56.8 percent (46-of-81) from the field, despite connecting on just two of their eight 3-point attempts, while Belmont Abbey shot just 31.1 percent (23-of-74). UNC also won the rebound battle by a 56-36 margin.
North Carolina officially opens the season on Monday against Florida International at the Smith Center.
INSIDE THE GAME
A Glimpse of Defensive Potential
With North Carolina’s height, the one thing that was a foregone conclusion coming into this season was this squad’s ability to challenge the school’s season-single block record. That aspect was put on display Friday night as seven different Tar Heels blocked at least one shot against Belmont Abbey en route to a team total of 13. Ed Davis and John Henson both recorded four apiece.
But what most fans and media types did not expect to see in the exhibition contest was several intense minutes of a full court press, complete with Tyler Zeller or Henson pressuring the inbounds pass under the basket.
Ginyard pointed to the team’s overall athleticism as being a crucial development in Williams’ decision to install the full court press in the shortened preseason practice schedule.
“Obviously, you have John Henson and his length out there, and having Dex [Strickland] out there on the perimeter and myself,” Ginyard said. “Even to get Deon out there flying around… Just guys that really have a good sense for the ball and that can get all over the court and put some pressure on the other teams.”
It may be weeks or even months before Williams has carved out the rotation that he will stick with for the stretch run, but even with the constant moving parts in Friday’s lineup, the defensive potential of this squad was unmistakable.
When the Crusaders’ Patus drilled a 3-pointer with 3:43 remaining before halftime to cut UNC’s lead to 42-29, the defensive switch was flipped. Over the next 18 minutes and some change, the Tar Heels held Belmont Abbey to 15.8 percent shooting (6-of-38). That 13-point lead increased to 95-45 during that stretch.
And a Senior Shall Lead Them
Seventy-four of North Carolina’s 107 points were provided by individuals standing 6-foot-9 or taller. The lone senior of the bunch – Deon Thompson – told reporters that it’s “pretty obvious” that this will be a post-driven squad.
On Friday night, it also was pretty obvious that Thompson will be the headliner for this frontcourt crew in 2009-10. The Torrance, Calif. native connected on 11 of his 12 shots in just 17 minutes of action, adding two steals and an assist to his eight rebounds in the final stat book.
“Deon’s not going to go 11-for-12 every night, but I wish he would,” Williams said.
But the importance of Thompson’s performance was more in how he played as opposed to the number of points and rebounds that he posted. For the first time in a long time, the senior forward looked comfortable on the court, complete with an added boost of explosiveness.
Thompson indicated that it was likely due to the fact that he didn’t have a four-time All-American with Hansbrough on the back of his jersey battling next to him in the post, as well as a few other key elements.
“My teammates are actually looking for me and we just don’t have that many scorers, so maybe me scoring the ball just shows up a little bit more than it did last year,” Thompson said.
But Williams has been cautious not to place the burden of replicating Tyler Hansbrough’s statistics on his senior’s shoulders this preseason.
“I think you harm somebody’s play if you expect them to take over for somebody that just left,” Williams said. “He’s just got to be a little bit better, and then if he’s a little bit more than that, that’s fine.”
Rounding the Edges at Point
For weeks the concern around this program has centered on the engine of Williams’ high-octane offense – the point guard position. Larry Drew and Strickland received the bulk of playing time at the 1-spot on Friday, with Ginyard serving as the third option on the depth chart.
Both players struggled in the early going, but their play improved as the game went along. Drew scored two points (1-of-4), dished out eight assists and committed three turnovers, while Strickland totaled eight points (4-of-5), two assists and three steals against four turnovers on the evening.
“I think Larry had some flashes where he made some good decisions and made some good plays,” Williams said. “He is a much better shooter than he was last year. He’s going to take and make some more outside shots than he did tonight.”
Both Drew and Strickland have plenty of potential to excel in Williams’ system, but the path to maximizing that ability may be an arduous journey that covers several months of the schedule. Early season matchups with Kentucky’s John Wall and Michigan State’s Kalin Lucas will be critical in UNC’s point guard evolution.