It's hard to tell what the North Carolina women's basketball team really looks like. With no scrimmages or exhibition games during the offseason due to COVID-19, the Tar Heels' 90-61 victory over Radford on Wednesday was the first competitive game, of any kind, the team had played since March.
Head coach Courtney Banghart didn't even know the starting lineup just 24 hours before when she spoke during a press conference.
Within the span of a single season, a basketball team could look like many different things. Different players and styles can emerge as necessary depending on how the season goes, and there's no way to predict whether or not a player will be rendered inactive for weeks by COVID-19.
Will first-year guard Deja Kelly continue to be the Tar Heels' leading scorer as she was Wednesday? Will graduate transfer Petra Holešínská shoot 50 percent from 3 every game? Will senior center Janelle Bailey continue to struggle on layups that were automatic for her last year?
The answer to all those questions is almost definitely "no," but they highlight how difficult it is to project on-court performance during the strangest college basketball season in history.
Right now, UNC looks like a deep team with multiple players who can score in the post, and a couple of guards who can hit their 3-pointers to keep defenses honest, with the entire team rebounding like crazy.
"As a coach, I can't help but see holes," Banghart said after the game. "But that's probably why we continue to get better. We've got some holes for sure, but right now, I love that we've been preaching that we have depth. We have options at various positions and different players that can hurt you in different ways."
The holes were there to see, even in the blowout — North Carolina gave up far too many threes to be comfortable with, even as the Highlanders shot just 33.3 percent on their attempts from distance. And for a period during the third quarter, the Tar Heels just stopped defending as Radford went on a 9-0 run.
But there's plenty of talent on display, as well as the depth that Banghart heralded. Last year's team was shallow and small — when UNC ran out of legs in the latter half of the season after a lightning-hot start, it led to an eight-game losing streak to finish the year. This year, the combination of Bailey's veteran stewardship and the influx of talent from young players could combine to be something dangerous.
"I feel like the team is coming together well," Bailey said. "Especially the younger guys, they're just really eager. Anytime, whether they mess up or they do something good, they just worry about 'what's the next play, what do I need to do.' They keep asking questions. I feel like they're ready to come in and get better every day."
It was the young players, combined with Holešínská who is young to Chapel Hill at least, who carried most of the scoring for the Tar Heels. Kelly finished with 19 points. Kennedy Todd-Williams, dubbed the "Scottie Pippen of college basketball" by Banghart, had 12 points along with nine rebounds (four offensive) and four assists, as well as a block and a steal. Alyssa Ustby might have been the biggest surprise, scoring 12 points on a near-perfect 6-7 shooting along with six rebounds and three assists.
"I think we did a pretty good job of executing," Kelly said about the young players. "Obviously we still have some things to work on, some things to learn and that will come down the road. I think we're gonna be pretty good just for being a young team."
This year, North Carolina will go as far as its young players can take it. But how they do that, exactly, remains to be seen.
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