What a strange turn of events to watch North Carolina men's basketball lose a lead, and then promptly turn around and blowout its opponent in response. After so many blown leads last year, the ability to not just fight back, but dominate an opponent is something of a novel concept for this iteration of the Tar Heels, at least dating back to last year.
As fans across the country likely groaned in their homes — not in the cavernous and nearly empty Dean E. Smith Center — while College of Charleston chipped away at a 14-point Tar Heel lead to eventually go on top by one in the second half, UNC showed why this year likely won't be a repeat of last season's 14-19 disaster.
The 79-60 final score certainly proved that.
An and-1 layup by first-year guard and scoring firecracker RJ Davis. A layup and two trips to the free throw line by the burly first-year forward Day'Ron Sharpe. A 3-pointer from explosive first-year guard Caleb Love. A pair of layups from the towering first-year forward Walker Kessler.
Slowly but surely, the talented core of North Carolina first-years turned the momentary deficit into a 17-point lead in under seven minutes. Last year's squad sorely lacked talent, asking far too much of overtaxed players like Brandon Robinson and Andrew Platek. This year, UNC finally has enough firepower that it no longer needs to rely on senior forward Garrison Brooks or departed guard Cole Anthony for the entire offense.
"It's great to see a lot of people score on your team," Brooks said. "Being very unselfish and being able to have that depth where anybody can score, anybody can be the high-scorer of the night, I think that's great for us."
It's a testament to what North Carolina has that a 19-point victory was still possible even on a subpar shooting night from Brooks, who hit just 3-10 shots along with four turnovers. Last year, a performance like that would have consigned UNC to its first disappointing loss of the season — this time around, the Tar Heels have the No. 2 recruiting class in the nation to pick up the slack.
There's still plenty UNC needs to fix before it faces better competition. The fact that the game was close at any point isn't a great sign, but it's to be expected for a team that had four first-years in its top-seven most used players on Wednesday.
"This team probably needed an exhibition game and a scrimmage or two exhibition games, maybe more than any team I've ever had," head coach Roy Williams said.
The season opener was the first time North Carolina started two first-year guards — Love and Davis — since the 2007 East Regional final vs. Georgetown. Seasoning will do this team well — first-year guard Kerwin Walton is not likely to go 0-3 from the field every game, and it's likely that he and fellow first-year wing Puff Johnson will play themselves further into the rotation with their shooting ability as they get their game-legs under them.
Kessler, who Williams said had been held out of practice for a couple weeks due to COVID-19 restrictions, will improve his conditioning and be able to play more than just five minutes in a game. Love and Davis, neither a "traditional" point guard in the mold of Kendall Marshall or Marcus Paige, will eventually get the hang of playing off each other better and understand what the North Carolina offense requires of them.
"One thing we have to get better at is more chemistry, and getting back on defense cause Coach wanted us to get on defense," Love said. "What we have in common and what's better for us that I think we already have, just us as a backcourt, I think we're so lethal. I don't think anyone else can guard us in transition."
North Carolina has always been a magnet for blue-chip recruits, but it's been a while since the Tar Heels had so many of them all at the same time. Things will get better, though, as this team and its young players figure out what exactly their identity is going to be.
There's more than enough talent to avoid the pitfalls of 14-19. It's just a matter of figuring out how the young guys will make it happen.
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