Art’s Angle: Already On The Bubble?

I guess it’s not too early to ask the question: Will Carolina make the NCAA Tournament this season?

The Tar Heels have missed the Big Dance only once in Roy Williams’ 11 years back in Chapel Hill, and while the current team is much better than the 2010 squad that went to the NIT final, several early season losses have already raised the question.

A disappointing defeat to then-unranked Butler in Nassau and a damaging home loss to Iowa have led to a 6-3 record after nine games, with UNCG in Greensboro Tuesday night and perhaps the most important non-conference game of the season against 12th-ranked Ohio State Saturday at the United Center in Chicago.

The Tar Heels did bounce back from Butler by knocking ranked UCLA and Florida out of the Top 25 to finish fifth in the Battle4Atlantis. And following a blowout of ECTC at home came what might be termed a “good loss” at No. 1 Kentucky because Carolina hung around with the best team in the country for much of the game.

After Ohio State are winnable (and must-win) home games against UAB and William & Mary before the rugged 18-game ACC schedule begins on January 3 at Clemson. That’s why the overall record by then needs to be 10-3 rather than 9-4. It is only a one-game difference, but doesn’t 10-3 sound so much better than 9-4?

College teams always want to have double-digit Ws by the time conference play opens. And the ACC has three teams in the top 10 (Duke, Louisville and Virginia) with Miami and Notre Dame joining UNC at the back end of the polls.

UNC’s home-and-home partners this year are Georgia Tech, Louisville, Duke and N.C. State. The road “singles” are at Clemson, Wake Forest, Boston College, Pitt and Miami, which means the Tar Heels do not give a return game to home opponents FSU, Notre Dame, Syracuse, Virginia Tech and Virginia.

Dean Smith used to laugh when the late Jim Valvano said his goal was to finish 8-6 in the old 14-game ACC schedule. Smith was amused that Jimmy V was conceding six losses for his Wolfpack. So you will never catch Roy Williams saying his goal is to go 9-9 in league play but, realistically, that’s about what the Tar Heels have to do to get into the 2015 Big Dance.

Beating Ohio State, which has already lost to Louisville, would help the old RPI and mean the Heels defeated three teams that were ranked at the time, albeit all on neutral courts. Those wins are offset by the loss to Butler and the awful performance against Iowa at home. So call Carolina on the bubble right now.

The days of putting on a powder blue uniform and being a shoo-in for the NCAA Tournament are long gone due to the balance around the country and a drop-off in Tar Heel talent since their 2009 national championship team. There are no seniors among the current top ten players, which bodes better for next season than this one. And certainly, things have to improve for Carolina to not only earn an NCAA bid but to get one of the top 16 seeds.

Where’s Paige?

Right now, the biggest concern is how discombobulated pre-season ACC Player of the Year Marcus Paige looks while splitting time at point guard and on the wing. He is still the team’s scoring leader, although his average is down three points from last year, and while his shooting stats are about the same, Paige’s assists are also down from his career average to this point.

Paige did light it up versus Kentucky in the second half, draining four three pointers. But he’s having trouble getting the ball in open spaces, and Carolina needs him to score in both halves against the better competition that’s coming.

While the starting bigs are averaging 25 points a game and 16.4 rebounds between them, Kennedy Meeks and Brice Johnson have to play even bigger. They are both around the basket, getting their hands on a lot of 50-50 balls, but they don’t snag enough of them and neither finishes particularly strong. If they did, their shooting accuracy would be even higher than Meeks’ 62 percent and Johnson’s 51.

The two players who have to keep elevating their games are junior J.P. Tokoto and freshman Justin Jackson, who log the most minutes on the court behind Paige. The sky-walking Tokoto leads the team with 21 blocks, and Jackson possesses the all-around game to make him a star in the ACC someday.

On paper, that’s a pretty damn good starting five – Paige, Jackson, Tokoto, Johnson and Meeks – with solid minutes coming from Isaiah Hicks, Nate Britt, Theo Pinson and Joel James. It has the makings of a top 10 team, if the Tar Heels can keep their motors running for every minute they are on the court and cut down on turnovers and carelessly committing too many fouls.

State is 8-2 against a typically soft early season schedule and suffered a killer home loss to Wofford. Time is running out for the Wolfpack. The Tar Heels have more time left to prove their worth, but they had better make the most of it.

http://chapelboro.com/columns/sports-notebook/arts-angle-already-bubble/

A Day In The Life At The Battle 4 Atlantis

Eight teams. Eight fan bases. Three days. Twelve games. One mega-resort. 3,300 seats. And don’t forget that kooky dancing basketball…

Just what was the Battle 4 Atlantis like, anyway?

All week long, through upsets and nailbiters, as ranked teams fell to confident challengers, people both here in Nassau and back home in America have been commenting about how strong a tournament this has been. But it took a trip to the Caribbean to actually get here, and the Imperial Arena (actually the Imperial Ballroom) isn’t very big. UNC folks were everywhere at the Atlantis – only Wisconsin’s fan base was bigger, and every other team was far behind – but still, this was a pretty tough ticket to get.

So here’s a look at part of what you might have missed – with photos taken (mostly) on Friday before and during UNC’s match with Florida.

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The lobby of the Atlantis Resort’s Royal Towers. Just like in the States, the Christmas decorations were out before Thanksgiving.

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Heather and Colin of Anthony Travel handled hospitality for UNC fans.

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Walking down the long hallway to the Imperial Ballroom Arena.

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Things start to get crowded in between games, as one group of fans leaves the arena and another group shuffles in. In this picture you can see a young Wisconsin fan bottom left and a Tar Heel fan there in the center. For those of you keeping score, there were three roughly equal groups of fans at Atlantis: UNC fans, Wisconsin fans, and every other fan base combined.

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Waiting just outside the hallway into the arena.

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Fans walked down a long hallway into a circular central area, made a right, walked down another long hallway into THIS circular central area, then made a left up there where it says “IMPERIAL ARENA” and entered from there. The arena itself is just on the other side of the wall with the UNC and UCLA banners.

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And here’s the entrance to the arena itself. Doors are on the left…

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…where the Tar Heels are warming up. Again, what you’re looking at is actually a 50,000-square foot ballroom, so the entire floor is carpeted; the court has been placed on top of the carpet and those bleachers are temporary. (It’s all extremely intimate – imagine Cameron Indoor Stadium with the upper deck removed. They had t-shirt guns for time-outs, but I saw one of the t-shirt gun guys casually underhand a shirt up into the stands – and it made it halfway back.)

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This photo’s dark, but this is your view entering the arena – you actually walk behind the back of the bleachers first.

4 - Battle4Atlantis Entering Imperial Arena

And then you round the corner and see this.

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If you happened to catch the games on TV, you probably noticed the unusual lighting. Here’s a shot of the blue lights, as the Heels and Gators continue warming up.

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They were handing these out to fans on Thursday. I’m not sure how many people used them; the games were exciting enough as it was.

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This guy is Bounce, the official mascot of the Battle 4 Atlantis. I liked him.

On Thanksgiving, Bounce was paired with a second mascot, a man-sized turkey dressed as a Pilgrim. (Not making that up.) It was the most Thanksgiving-y thing I saw all day: Paradise Island really does not feel like a foreign country in any manner – they even accept US currency – but Thanksgiving is not exactly a big holiday there. (Though to be fair, Paradise Island exists to be a tourist destination, so I’m not sure any holiday would feel all that big. Maybe Christmas, I guess, but otherwise it’s just one eternal Saturday.)

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Obviously I’m no professional photographer, but here are the pros, seated next to the basket in the middle of the game. See the guy with the dark hair and the mustache right in the middle, holding the big camera? That’s Nick Vitali; he took all the in-game shots for Chapelboro…

UNC Basketball Marcus Paige vs Florida in Battle 4 Atlantis - 3

…and that was his vantage point when he took this nice shot of Marcus Paige shooting over a Gator defender.

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The Tar Heels beat the Gators, 75-64. Afterwards, Coach Williams and the players got a loud ovation from the UNC fans in the hallway outside the arena as they waded their way into the press conference room. “We’re very appreciative,” said Williams after the UCLA game on Thursday, noting just how strong the UNC fan base was in Nassau this week.

I took this picture around 11:00, about an hour after the game was over; numerous Tar Heel players were still out there, signing autographs, shaking hands, and taking pictures with dozens of fans. The Battle 4 Atlantis in a nutshell: players, coaches, and fans all intermingling in the same resort. Total strangers shouting “Go Heels!” and “Go Badgers!” at each other as they passed. Very cool atmosphere.

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…and not a bad location either.

 

http://chapelboro.com/columns/aaron-keck/day-life-battle-4-atlantis/

UNC Rolls Over Florida, 75-64, In Battle 4 Atlantis

The Tar Heel basketball team jumped out to a 12-0 lead on Friday and never looked back, rolling over the No. 16 Florida Gators 75-64 in the final game of the Battle 4 Atlantis.

It was UNC’s second win in as many days over a ranked opponent: they also beat UCLA on Thursday after an opening-game loss to Butler.

“We feel better than we did after the first night,” said head coach Roy Williams after the game.

Carolina hounded Florida on defense from the beginning; the Gators didn’t score until almost seven minutes had gone by. Florida’s outside shooting came up short as well: the Gators shot only 6-27 from 3-point range. (The Heels, by contrast, shot 6-12 from beyond the arc.)

Photo by Nick Vitali.

Photo by Nick Vitali.

By halftime, UNC led 39-23. Florida got as close as 7 in the second half, but never really threatened. The Tar Heels never trailed during the game.

It was a team effort all the way for UNC. Kennedy Meeks led the way with another double-double, 18 points and 13 rebounds (tying his career high for rebounds). Justin Jackson scored the first five points of the game and ended with 12.  JP Tokoto and Brice Johnson each added 10, and Marcus Paige chipped in 16.

Brice Johnson goes high for a slam against Florida. Photo by Nick Vitali.

Brice Johnson goes high for a slam against Florida. Photo by Nick Vitali.

But UNC struggled against Florida’s full-court press, and the Tar Heels shot only 32 percent in the second half after shooting 58 percent in the first half – points that Williams says give the team something to work on.

Tonight Billy’s press really bothered us,” he said, referring to Florida head coach Billy Donovan. “We turned it over 19 times, and that’s too many to say the least.”

Still, UNC came away with a double-digit win against a ranked opponent. Both Williams and his players gave part of the credit for that to the team’s depth – which allowed the players to stay fresh, even while playing three games in three days.

“Yesterday (against UCLA) I think we (only) had two guys play over 22 minutes,” Williams said. “The depth helped us win the game last night, and I think it helped us get off to a better start tonight.”

JP Tokoto agreed. “In the UCLA game, the guys were really fired up from the Butler loss…(and) for this game it was the same thing as yesterday,” he said. “We knew we had to come out with energy – (and) everyone played three games, so we knew we couldn’t use that as an excuse. Our depth really helped us.”

Marcus Paige drives against Florida in the Battle 4 Atlantis. Photo by Nick Vitali.

Marcus Paige drives against Florida in the Battle 4 Atlantis. Photo by Nick Vitali.

With the win, UNC moves to 5-1 on the season (2-1 this week in the Bahamas) and takes home fifth place in the Battle 4 Atlantis – a high-level tournament that included four ranked teams plus at least three high-quality unranked teams in Butler, Georgetown and Oklahoma.

“We were exposed to many different things,” Williams said – citing Butler’s physical play, UCLA’s speed, and Florida’s screen on the ball. “Used to be, a tournament would be four good teams and four not-so-good teams. But this is a big time tournament…great tournament, great field, and I do believe it really helped us.”

Wisconsin took home the 2014 Battle 4 Atlantis title by beating Oklahoma in the championship game on Friday.

UNC has very little time to relax: they host Iowa on Wednesday back in Chapel Hill, in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.

http://chapelboro.com/sports/unc-sports/unc-rolls-florida-75-64-battle-4-atlantis/

Tar Heels Bounce Back, Beat UCLA 78-56

One day after a disappointing loss to Butler, the Tar Heel basketball team changed up its lineup, came out fresh, and rolled to a 78-56 victory over the no. 22 UCLA Bruins on Thanksgiving night in the Bahamas.

Roy Williams started Isaiah Hicks, Joel James, and Nate Britt in place of Brice Johnson, JP Tokoto and Kennedy Meeks. James was a non-factor, but Hicks finished with 10 points on 5-7 shooting – tying the career high he set the day before.

“They pay me a lot of money to make decisions,” said head coach Roy Williams on the lineup switch. “I was ticked off (after the Butler game), I made decisions – and it worked out fine.”

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Meeks, Johnson and Tokoto prepare to enter the game after sitting the first couple minutes. (Photo by Nick Vitali.)

UCLA jumped out to an early 7-point lead, but Carolina came back quickly, took the lead, and went into halftime up 43-29. UCLA cut the lead to 9 early in the second half, but the Tar Heels rolled from there, dominating in the paint and hitting outside shots over the Bruins’ zone. Marcus Paige gave Carolina a 17-point lead with back-to-back three-pointers, and UCLA never threatened again.

“We shot the ball better, and we caught UCLA on a night when their shots didn’t go in,” said Williams.

Paige led the way for the Heels with 21 points. Justin Jackson added 12 and JP Tokoto chipped in 10 off the bench.

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Marcus Paige battles UCLA’s Bryce Alford for the ball. (Photo by Nick Vitali.)

“We did get a little motivation from our coaching staff” after the Butler game, said Paige. (An understatement, presumably – as a laughing Williams sat beside him.) “I like the way we responded; hopefully we won’t have to have a lot of those teaching points again.”

A night after being out-muscled by Butler, the Tar Heels led the Bruins 34-28 in points in the paint.

The key stat, though, was turnovers. Hounded by Carolina’s defense, UCLA turned the ball over 23 times to UNC’s 11, and UNC capitalized, leading the Bruins 31-6 in points off turnovers.

“For us it’s easy now to see the difference in how we played tonight versus how we played yesterday,” said Paige. “Being unselfish, flying around on defense – that’s a more fun style to play, and when you see the results…why wouldn’t you want to play that way?”

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Tokoto electrified the crowd with a big breakaway dunk. (Photo by Nick Vitali.)

In all, ten Tar Heels scored in the game – including Sasha Seymore, who came in late with the Heels up big.

“We play more guys than they do…and so it was important for us to have fresh troops out there most of the time,” said Williams. UNC’s deeper bench meant their players would be better rested in the second half, a big advantage in case the Heels needed a comeback.

On this night, though, they didn’t even come close to needing it.

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Meeks and crew celebrate the Tar Heels’ victory. (Photo by Nick Vitali.)

The Heels next face Florida in the fifth-place game of the Battle 4 Atlantis, Friday night at 8 pm. (The Gators narrowly escaped an upset bid by UAB in the late game. Florida and UNC last met in the 2000 Final Four.) Wisconsin and Oklahoma will meet in the final at 4:30.

http://chapelboro.com/sports/unc-sports/tar-heels-bounce-back-beat-ucla-78-56/

Experience, Talent & Depth Trifecta Tantamount for Tar Heels

Through two games, the UNC men’s basketball team has been coasting. More challenging hurdles await, but for now, the Tar Heels are enjoying a squad equipped with experience and deep in talent.

***Listen to the story***

“In 1990, I think we averaged 92 per game and shot over 50 percent from the floor. People just couldn’t guard us because we had all guys who could pass and shoot. That was a lot of fun. I just sort of sat over there and clapped. This could be the best offensive rebounding team I’ve ever coached. Now we have to do it,” UNC head coach Roy Williams says.

One of the freshmen with boundless potential is Justin Jackson. Jackson has been impressive so far, running the floor with ease and seemingly always putting himself in the right position to make plays.

Jackson shoots (Todd Melet)

Jackson shoots (Todd Melet)

Jackson recorded 13 points in the Robert Morris romp and says he’s having fun and staying relaxed in the spotlight.

“I just try to have fun with it, play my game and do whatever I need to do to help the team win. I try not to pay attention to all the other stuff out there. I just try to play my game,” Jackson says.

UNC has faced primarily zone defenses to date this season, but Coach Williams is hoping his team’s dominance in the rebounding department can overcome any shooting slumps and in effect, beat all future zones.

“If you aren’t a good shooting team, you better go get your misses. We’ve had some teams that didn’t mind playing against the zone, and people didn’t play zone against us because we moved the ball so well and did a great job on the offensive backboards. That’s what we have to do if we’re not shooting the ball as well as I’d like us to,” Coach Williams says.

Junior forward J.P. Tokoto had 10 assists Sunday thanks to laser-like precision and sharp court awareness.

But Coach Williams says he needs more than just exceptional passing. He needs him to take over the offensive boards.

“He’s really a good passer, period. He’s got size and looks over the defense. He’s really a good passer, but I told him I don’t want him to think he’s the assist man only, because he’s one of the best offensive rebounders I’ve ever coached. We’ve got to get him going to the boards,” Coach Williams says.

Sophomore forward Kennedy Meeks scored 21 points last time out in the Smith Center.

Brice Johnson, Paige & Meeks watch on (Todd Melet)

Brice Johnson, Paige & Meeks watch on (Todd Melet)

But despite the encouraging performance, Meeks says Coach Williams is pushing the Tar Heels for more – he wants greater intensity on a consistent basis from all of his players.

“Rebounding, effort – he really didn’t use ‘sense of urgency’, but that’s what he meant. I know he talked about it last year a lot. It’s something that’s important to our team,” Meeks says.

Yes, the fourth ingredient to the magic formula for success may yet again be ‘sense of urgency’.

And if the Tar Heels can add a dash of passion to their experience, talent and depth, the sky may very well be the limit for this year’s Carolina squad.

http://chapelboro.com/sports/unc-sports/experience-talent-depth-trifecta-tantamount-tar-heels/

Johnson, Meeks Shine As Carolina Conquers Robert Morris

The North Carolina men’s basketball team downed Robert Morris 103-59 Sunday evening in the Smith Center to improve to 2-0 on the year.

With the loss, the Colonials dropped to 0-2 overall.

***Listen to the story***

Brice Johnson led the Tar Heel scoring charge with 23 points, eight rebounds and was closely followed by Kennedy Meeks with 21 points, 12 rebounds. Marcquise Reed  topped the Colonial stat sheet, contributing 22 points to the losing cause.

“We were much more active defensively tonight than we were Friday night. That feels like a long time ago. […] We were more gifted than Robert Morris. I was pleased with our effort. The biggest thing is early in the game, we dominated the boards,” UNC head coach Roy Williams says.

***Listen to Roy Williams’ postgame remarks***

UNC outrebounded Robert Morris 49-31. The Tar Heels imposed their improved physicality on their opponent.

“Kennedy [Meeks] and myself were exploding up there and getting it. That’s one thing Coach has been telling us – explode up there and grab it. We did a good job of keeping it high, going to get the rebound and putting it back up there,” Johnson says.

UNC opened proceedings with focused intent, playing smothering defense and using efficient and balanced offensive play to storm out to a 12-2 lead with 15:50 on the first half clock.

Johnson battles inside (Todd Melet)

Johnson battles inside (Todd Melet)

Freshman Marcquise Reed provided a solid offensive boost for the Colonials, finding space and knocking down shots with ten quick points early.

“It’s great for him. A lot of our guys that are playing their second college game made strides in the right direction. Obviously, Marcquise made some great individual plays in the context of our offense,” Robert Morris head coach Andrew Toole says.

Meeks established himself as the dominant player on the floor, though, dominating inside and accumulating 15 points just 12 minutes into the game.

Meeks finishing at the basket (Todd Melet)

Meeks finishing at the basket (Todd Melet)

 

Carolina continued to distribute the ball well with crisp passing, refusing to settle for anything but high-percentage shots to the delight of Coach Williams.

At the half, the Tar Heels enjoyed a 53-35 advantage.

UNC shot out to another strong start for the final 20 minutes of action, running the floor with ease and going up to the rim with authority. UNC started on a 23-6 run to pull away.

Marcus Paige really got things going as well with seven straight points that provided even more separation for the home team.

Desmond Hubert offered up a monster dunk with a note-worthy leap that had the Dean Dome crowd erupting.

With 11:40 remaining in the game, Carolina had built an 80-43 advantage.

From there, the Tar Heels never looked back and cruised to victory, allowing Coach Williams to play with his lineup and get all his players plenty of meaningful playing time.

Next up for Carolina comes a road game in Charlotte at the Time Warner Cable Arena next Saturday, Nov. 22 against the Davidson Wildcats.

FINAL BOX SCORE

http://chapelboro.com/sports/unc-sports/carolina-conquers-robert-morris/

Balanced Tar Heels Clip Eagles 76-60 In Home Opener

The No. 6 North Carolina men’s basketball team got its season off to a winning start with balanced scoring that led to a comfortable 76-60 triumph over the N.C. Central Eagles Friday night in the Smith Center.

***Listen to the story***

Junior forward Brice Johnson led the Tar Heel scoring charge with 12 points and tossed in eight rebounds and two blocks. Those 12 points match the smallest output by a UNC leading scorer in any game last year.

Kennedy Meeks and J.P. Tokoto also scored in double figures with 10 points each, while freshman Justin Jackson closely followed, tallying nine points of his own.

UNC head coach Roy Williams reached an impressive milestone Friday night, earning his 1000th combined win as a college coach, beginning with his days as an assistant under Carolina’s Dean Smith.

Coach Williams wasn't all smiles Friday night (Todd Melet)

Coach Williams wasn’t all smiles Friday night (Todd Melet)

Coach Williams, though, wasn’t in a celebratory mood after the game. He says he was frustrated with his team’s overall play.

“We went to a lot of different lineups tonight, played a lot of people, didn’t shoot the ball exceptionally well and didn’t handle the ball exceptionally well. We had 14 turnovers, and they had 14 turnovers. They’re playing zone most of the game. We were playing pressure man-to-man and full-court man-to-man and didn’t exactly get them to turn the ball over,” Coach Williams says.

***Listen to Roy Williams’ postgame remarks***

Earlier in the week, it seemed a certainty that junior forward J.P. Tokoto would be in the starting lineup for the home opener, but Coach Williams surprisingly started freshman Theo Pinson in his place.

Coach Williams says Tokoto did something to upset him in my practice, but insists he’s put it all behind him and is still pleased with Tokoto’s play leading up to the season.

“J.P. made a mistake in practice and did something I didn’t like, so I didn’t start him. It’s over with now. He started in the second half. It’s no big deal. He’s had a great preseason. He’s done some nice things for us and has had as good of, if not the best, preseason practice period as anybody on our team,” Coach Williams says.

Promising freshman Jackson was a star performer in the two preseason exhibition games, but he admits he felt a little more pressure Friday night in the regular season opener.

“I wouldn’t say I was extremely nervous, but obviously, it’s the first game that really counts. I was a little nervous, but once I got out there and started playing, I was fine,” Jackson says.

Jackson also notes a glaring strength for the Tar Heels – their depth.

Justin Jackson drives to the basket (Todd Melet)

Justin Jackson drives to the basket (Todd Melet)

“On the court, we just keep getting better. We’ve got so many guys that can play this game. We can go so deep and never lose it. It’s really great,” Jackson says.

N.C. Central head coach LaVelle Moton, whose stock is rising with each successive season, had his Eagles playing a disciplined brand of basketball, confusing the Tar Heels at times with multiple defensive schemes.

Anthony McDonald scored 16 points to lead the Eagles on the offensive end.

Coach Williams was full of praise for the solid coaching job turned in by Coach Moton, but there was one irksome play that stuck out in his mind that will have an effect on practice this weekend.

“I think it’s a good learning experience. It’s a good team, a very good coach, and those kids played really hard. Again, one play in the first half, they had one guy going for the rebound and we had four. Who came up with the ball? Their guy. We’ll see that play at practice tomorrow,” Coach Williams says.

With the win, Carolina is now 93-12 in season openers and has recorded wins in 80 of its last 85 opening games. Under Coach Williams, the Tar Heels are 11-1 in openers.

UNC returns to action Sunday evening at 6 p.m. with a matchup against Robert Morris of the Northeast conference. The game is slated for a 6 p.m. tipoff.

FINAL BOX SCORE

http://chapelboro.com/sports/unc-sports/tar-heels-clip-eagles-opener/

UNC Big Man Brice Johnson Upping Aggression Ante

UNC men’s basketball junior forward Brice Johnson has shown flashes of brilliance for the Tar Heels in his first two seasons, but in year three, Johnson is hoping to answer head coach Roy Williams’ call and become a ‘big-time player’.

***Listen to the story***

“I’ve said this so many times I’m already sick of hearing it myself – one or two or three of those guys needs to step up and say,’ I’m going to be a big-time player.’ I don’t think there’s any question that Marcus [Paige] stepped up last year and said, ‘I’m going to be a big-time player.’ Now, one of the post players has got to step up and not just be willing to run up and down the court and wait on Marcus to do something,” Coach Williams says.

One of those players with a realistic shot of taking his place next to Paige in a leading role is no doubt Brice Johnson.

Last season, Johnson was a high-quality sixth man, coming off the bench with vigor, often adding a much needed emotional boost to the Tar Heel lineup in crucial moments.

Tar Heel bench celebrates (Todd Melet)

Tar Heel bench celebrates (Todd Melet)

But in his junior campaign, Coach Williams will need Johnson to become a dominant force in the starting lineup. Johnson’s put in the time in the weight room. He’s bulked up in the offseason, adding 15-20 pounds of muscle in an effort to bruise with the best of them in the ACC.

Johnson (Todd Melet)

Johnson (Todd Melet)

Johnson says preseason practices have taken on a more aggressive tenor this season.

“Everybody’s a lot more aggressive than they were last year. We are really aggressive now. Coach really needs someone to step up. That’s the biggest emphasis he has on offense. He wants to get it inside the post so we can open up shots for Marcus, J.P. [Tokoto], Theo [Pinson], Joel [Berry], Justin [Jackson] and all the perimeter guys. We have to be very aggressive in the post and score something,” Johnson says.

Who would Coach Williams like to see become that consistent enforcer around the rim? The Hall of Famer says Johnson has the most experience, but he’s not playing favorites.

“I’d love it to be all of them. I don’t have any favorites as to who it is. Brice has played more and has more experience. He really did a nice job in the offseason. He looks different. Now he’s got to take that weight and do something with it. Somebody’s got to step forward, separate and say, ‘I’m the guy,’’ Coach Williams says.

It remains to be seen whether 6’ 9” exercise and sport science major will be ‘the guy’ that Coach Williams is referring to, but he certainly has bountiful potential.

Johnson is the top returning rebounder from last season and also led the team in blocks. What’s more, the silky smooth shooter led UNC in field goal percentage.

But Johnson isn’t satisfied. He says he wants to follow his teammate’s lead, Paige that is, and record a breakout season that will have everybody in the college basketball world turning their heads.

“I really do. I just have to work a little harder. You can always work a little harder with whatever you’re doing. I could be that person. I have to be able to go out there and show it,” Johnson says.

Johnson will have his first opportunity to put his improved game on display Friday night in the Smith Center, when the Tar Heels tip off their regular season at 8 p.m. against the N.C. Central Eagles.

http://chapelboro.com/sports/unc-sports/unc-big-man-brice-johnson-upping-aggression-ante/

Tar Heels Crush Crusaders 112-34 In Final Tune-Up

With a balanced offensive approach and a staunch defensive effort, the UNC men’s basketball team blasted Belmont Abbey 112-34 in a Friday night exhibition game at the Dean E. Smith Center.

It was all Tar Heels from the outset, as Justin Jackson and Kennedy Meeks netted 10 points each in the opening half and 13 different players got in the scoreboard in all. Jackson finished with 16 points, while Meeks and Isaiah Hicks each scored 14.

UNC head coach Roy Williams likes his team’s chances heading into the regular season.

“We have a chance to be much better this year than we were last year. With J.P. and Justin at 2,3, they’re 6’7, 6’8, with their length and athleticism they have, and Marcus (Paige) is as good of a defender as I’ve ever had as a point guard, so that’s pretty strong on the perimeter. And you get the big guys in there, then you have a chance,” Coach Williams says.

Belmont Abbey hit just five field goals in the opening half, including a pair of three-pointers. The Crusaders were 5 of 26 from the field and hit just one of two free throws. The visitors had serious trouble getting anything going, committing 17 turnovers eclipsing even their rebound total (14) for the opening 20 minutes.

Tar Heel bench celebrates (Todd Melet)

Tar Heel bench celebrates (Todd Melet)

A Marcus Paige trey gave UNC a 7-0 lead just two minutes in, while a Hicks dunk made it 30-6 at the 9:10 mark. Hicks added another emphatic dunk with just four seconds left in the opening half to make it 57-13 heading into intermission.

The Tar Heels continued their crisp play after the break, scoring the first eight points to extend their lead to 65-13. About the only question in the second half would be when the Tar Heels would reach the century mark.

A Nate Britt free throw with 4:42 remaining made the answer an affirmative one. Theo Pinson then put on a mini-show with a dunk, followed by a steal and a successful jumper as the Tar Heels pushed their lead to 104-29.

J.P. Tokoto added 11 points and six rebounds and Nate Britt chipped in with 10 points and four assists for the Tar Heels.

Drexler Clark was the lone Crusaders player to reach double-figures in scoring, netting 14 points.

UNC opens its non-conference slate when it welcomes NC Central to the Smith Center next Friday (11/14). It marks the first of six straight home games until the Tar Heels travel to Kentucky to play the Wildcats on Dec. 13.

http://chapelboro.com/sports/unc-sports/tar-heels-crush-crusaders-final-tune/

Jackson, Tar Heels Get Final Smith Center Tune-Up

The No. 6 North Carolina men’s basketball team will conduct its final preseason tune-up Friday night at 7:30 pm in the Smith Center when the Tar Heels welcome Belmont Abbey Crusaders to Chapel Hill for an exhibition contest.

In their first exhibition, the Tar Heels easily glided by Fayetteville State 111-58.

Highly-touted freshman Justin Jackson led the scoring charge with 18 points, including a 3-4 mark from the three-point line.

Belmont Abbey recorded an 11-16 record a year ago and finished seventh in Conference Carolinas.

Following Friday’s exhibition, the Tar Heels will set their sights on their regular season opener next Friday against N.C. Central, a surprising NCAA Tournament team from last season.

Click here for the full 2014-2015 men’s basketball schedule.

http://chapelboro.com/sports/unc-sports/jackson-tar-heels-get-final-smith-center-tune/