The return to the court after a disappointing 2015-16 season was still promising. Head coach Sylvia Hatchell looked forward to having a reliable, seasoned backcourt in her arsenal for the coming season. Stephanie Watts, last year’s ACC Freshman of the Year, and fellow sophomore Destinee Walker — the ACC leader in minutes played last season — joined two-year starter Jamie Cherry and finally-eligible Vanderbilt transfer Paris Kea in a crowded backcourt.
No more beating against the current — the Tar Heels were heading in the right direction.
“We’re trying to get as far as we can in the NCAA Tournament this year,” Watts said after the team’s final preseason game. “And although we are a young team, I think we will go a lot further than people think we will.”
So far, the Tar Heels have seen drastic improvement. Their record is void of any glaring upsets, and they’ve beaten Big Ten opponents Wisconsin and Minnesota and knocked off Virginia for their first ACC win.
The four guards have anchored this team through its 12-4 (1-2 ACC) start. Each player starts and averages over 32 minutes per game.
The small lineup is unconventional, but UNC has reaped benefits from starting four ball-handlers.
North Carolina can execute the up-tempo, fast-break game Hatchell has always insisted on playing. The Tar Heels vary between man-to-man and zone defenses, speeding up the game and creating more possessions.
Perimeter shooting has also improved, as UNC ranks third in the ACC in made 3-pointers per game (8.3).
“I trust my teammates to the point that is unbelievable,” Cherry said after her team’s win over Bucknell. “And I know that Steph and them are great shooters, so it is just a matter of them getting more shots up. And they will hit them.”
One game later, Watts set an ACC record with 10 made three-pointers against Charleston Southern.
There are a few drawbacks to this lineup, though.
Kea, a 5-foot-9 guard, takes the opening tip, guarding the opponent’s power forward and manning the high post in the offense. While she has mostly thrived in this role, teams with big, mobile forwards can exploit North Carolina’s small frontcourt — like Virginia Tech did to open up ACC play.
Rebounding has certainly been a weakness for UNC this season, as North Carolina ranks last in the ACC in rebounding margin (-0.9).
Despite its small lineup and outside scoring prowess, the team is most defined by its youth. The Tar Heels play significantly better at home (9-1) than away from Carmichael Arena (3-3), and they play to their level of their competition as they learn to establish consistency.
But Hatchell draws optimism from watching her team grow.
“Just think, everything we do, two-thirds of the team has never done it before,” Hatchell said after North Carolina’s win over Virginia. “But they’re fun ... the coaching staff has done this forever and we sometimes take things for granted. Sometimes their innocence just makes me smile.”