If Friday night’s exhibition game against Mount Olive was a “glorified practice” as head coach Roy Williams described it, then it was a productive one.
Williams, who is entering his 31st season as a head coach and his 16th season at the helm of the Tar Heel basketball program, played 10 athletes in the first 12 minutes of the game and scripted his lineups all the way through the first half of the play. Mount Olive’s full-court defense afforded him the chance to work on his press offense — something that, admittedly, his team hasn’t had time to fully codify.
Above all, in deciding to start first-year Coby White instead of junior Seventh Woods, Williams confirmed a doctrine of his that a bulk of North Carolina basketball fans still do not understand during said glorified, public practice. Sure, the fact that he’s running a perennial powerhouse requires that he has foresight, and thus incentivizes him to stick to certain devices that have worked over the years; but, first and foremost, he plays those who impress.
In other words, Williams will start who he trusts. There is no arbitrary appeal to tradition — no obligation to start someone who’s been patiently waiting their turn over someone who has seized the moment since arriving to campus.
It’s a matter of who is playing better.
“I thought (White) played much better in practice than he did tonight, but I think he’s going to be one heck of a player for us,” Williams said after his team’s 107-64 win. “He and Seventh both had four turnovers, Coby in 22 minutes and Seventh in 16, so I don’t like point guards that have those kinds of turnover totals … but Coby has really had a good preseason for us.”
White passed the eye test on Friday. The guard was one of five players in double figures and notched a team-high with six assists, pushing the tempo and getting to the hole at will. His four turnovers in 22 minutes came in a high-possession contest that senior Kenny Williams said was “a tough one” for him to have in his first start.
“I definitely think he’ll be way more effective once he doesn’t have to bring the ball up against pressure for the whole 40 minutes because that wears a point guard down,” Kenny Williams said. “Like I said, Sev or Coby, no matter who we put out there, we’re going to have a solid point guard to lead our team.”
An opportunity granted is really an opportunity allocated, though. Woods — who put together an 8-point (including two and-one finishes), 2-assist statline, and had the highest plus-minus for UNC reserves with +28 — didn’t start either half of the game on Friday.
Kenny Williams said Woods and White have been interchanging with the first team in practice all preseason, and that the team didn’t know who was starting until hours before the game at shoot-around.
“Sev would go with the first group this day, Coby would go with the first group the next day,” Kenny Williams said. “But we never knew who was going to start until four hours before the game.”
For someone who has fought a slew of injuries throughout his collegiate career, who has had to wait behind Joel Berry II for two years and even Jalek Felton last year, and who is familiar with getting less than two minutes of playing time before getting pulled for taking a contested jumper — Woods has all the reasons in the world to be frustrated.
But, at least outwardly, he isn’t.
“It’s life, honestly,” Woods said about not getting the start. “You got to compete for the spot you want. Like I said, (White) got (the start) today, but there’s still a lot of improvement for the both of us. I just want to play basketball and contribute to the team.”
For Roy Williams, Friday’s festivities might have been as consequential as a glorified practice, but it was more than that.
It was an indication of how much Coach Williams trusts his new, highly-touted point guard to run his team. It tested Woods’ patience after being introduced to the idea that he may be an understudy for another year.
And, most of all, it signaled to Tar Heel fans that even though Coach Williams is running a program — he isn’t afraid to have a first-year be his next in command.
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