After Carolina dispatched Florida Atlantic 80-56 on Sunday afternoon, Roy Williams had a simple assessment: "We got a heck of a lot better as a team today."
At this point in the season, that's the goal every time out for this particular type of young Tar Heel team. But after two home wins, with a challenging stretch of four games away from home in six days, what have we learned about the 2013 Tar Heels?
The offense runs through James Michael McAdoo.
The sophomore has been exactly what you hoped he'd be after emerging at the end of his freshman campaign. He's taken 26.1 percent of Carolina's field goal attempts, a mark that would easily eclipse the previous high in the Williams era (Rashad McCants attempted 23.6 percent of UNC's field goals during the 2003-04 season).
Early in the season, with no dominant secondary scorer having emerged yet, McAdoo's teammates might even be overly conscious of feeding him the ball. Late in the first half against Florida Atlantic, J.P. Tokoto was so eager to find McAdoo in the post that he forgot the shot clock was off. After forcing a bounce pass that was stolen, Tokoto is likely to remember next time that one of Williams's major points of emphasis for young players-or any players-is being cognizant of time and score, and adjusting appropriately.
Minutes are overrated.
Keep in mind that minutes played in November don't always have a correlation to minutes played in March-or even minutes played in December. Desmond Hubert has earned a pair of starts so far, but the Tar Heels have used Joel James to start the second half of both games. "That position is not set in stone," Williams said Sunday. "It's not the most physical, best lineup in the world with James Michael and Brice (Johnson) in there, but that's a possibility also. Right now, Desmond and Joel are going to get most of the time in there."
History shows the rotation is often fluid during the early part of the season. Everyone knows that Reggie Bullock's minutes increased after Dexter Strickland's injury last year. What you might not remember is that Bullock played relatively sparingly in the first two games of his sophomore campaign-he saw just 22 combined minutes against Michigan State and UNC Asheville. But even before Strickland's injury, Bullock's minutes had increased substantially, and he played 18 minutes against Miami and 23 against Florida State before Strickland went down in Blacksburg.
And if you're looking for some history of freshmen earning more minutes as the season progressed, remember that Ty Lawson played just 18 minutes in his first game as a Tar Heel. Less than a month later, he was on the court for 25 minutes against Tennessee in New York City. It's possible there's someone among the current crop of young Tar Heels who could see a similar increase.
Johnson, for example, has been very productive (he's scoring a point every 1.3 minutes that he's on the court, tied with McAdoo for the best ratio on the team) and has shown an intriguing knack for getting off the floor quickly. Speaking only of that particular trait, and not for his overall play, it's almost a little Jamisonesque the way he gets the ball to the rim in a way that surprises his defender. The next challenge is proving he can achieve the same results against the bigger, stronger players he'll see over the next week.
The Tar Heels are very unselfish.
Carolina has assisted on 37 of its 64 field goals so far this year, meaning they're earning an assist on 57.8% of made baskets. Last year's ratio, which included one of the best passers in school history, Kendall Marshall, was 58.1%. So far, this year's leading assist man is Reggie Bullock with seven. That's a stat that figures to change-and needs to change-because Bullock is the team's leading three-point shooter (57.1%) and second-best shooter overall from the field (72.7%, which trails only Joel James's 87.5% mark).
But on a team still searching for some defined scoring roles, it's encouraging to see how willing the entire rotation has been to probe for the best shot. Being willing to share the ball, plus being aggressive in transition, is leading to good scoring chances. This year's squad is shooting 49.6% from the field on two-point baskets, the same percentage last year's club shot inside the three-point line.
Dexter Strickland is important.
He's in his fourth season, so he's not taking anyone by surprise anymore, but it's still guaranteed that at least twice per game, Strickland is going to sprint past his man in transition and get a layup or a foul. As Williams said before the season, the New Jersey senior isn't a true point guard, but he has value as a secondary ball-handler who is comfortable taking advantage of a lagging defense.
His instincts to the basket have sent him to the line at an impressive rate, as he's attempting a free throw every 4.8 minutes-second on the team, behind only McAdoo. The next challenge?
The Tar Heels need to make some of those free throws.
As has been well documented, the Tar Heels are shooting an abysmal 45.7% from the stripe. That figure is going to improve. But it's fair to be concerned, as there is only one player in the current rotation with a career free throw percentage above 71 percent-P.J. Hairston, who hit 83.9% of his charity tosses last year. Strickland, for example, entered the season as a career 68.5% free throw shooter, and McAdoo hit 63.8% as a freshman.
One of last season's biggest luxuries was the fact that Carolina's most frequent free throw shooter, Tyler Zeller, also happened to be one of the team's best free throw shooters (80.8%). Three players in last year's top seven hit better than 71 percent from the line.
An easy way to improve this year's figures would be for Bullock to get to the line more. "We've talked about that a great deal," Williams said. "Walter Davis didn't get to the free throw line as much as we wanted him to, because he was a jump shooter and not a driver. Wayne Ellington didn't get to the free throw line as much as I wanted him to."
Even that duo, though, was positively Hansbroughesque compared to Bullock. Ellington shot a free throw every 11.4 minutes of his three-year career, and while minutes weren't kept during Davis's era, he still averaged 3.9 free throws per game during his four years. Bullock, right now, is taking a free throw every 30 minutes, or roughly one per game during his career. The Kinston native hit 72.7% from the line last year.Adam Lucas is the publisher of Tar Heel Monthly and the author or co-author of seven books on the Tar Heels.