It didn't take long to figure out what kind of night it was going to be at the Smith Center.
As the Tar Heels prepared to inbound the ball under their own basket early in the first half, Brice Johnson and James Michael McAdoo suddenly found themselves occupying the same space on the floor. The ball was tapped around and eventually retained by Carolina. As they reset for the next inbounds, McAdoo looked at Johnson and said simply, "You're the four, man."
Such was the tone of the evening. Playing without P.J. Hairston (status uncertain), Leslie McDonald (see Hairston) and J.P. Tokoto (will be back for Oakland next Friday), the Tar Heels had to mix together some unusual lineups. Marcus Paige spent more time away from the ball than on the ball. James Michael McAdoo and freshman Isaiah Hicks logged considerable minutes at the small forward spot. Luke Davis--a virtual one-man guard depth chart--played 25 minutes, or almost as many as Hicks and fellow freshman big man Kennedy Meeks combined (27).
One of the enjoyable parts of the exhibition games is usually getting an early look at this year's Tar Heels. It's just that during some parts of the 82-63 win over UNC Pembroke, the team on the floor probably didn't bear much resemblance to this year's Tar Heels.
"It's hard," Roy Williams said after the game. "We've got a lineup out there and poor Isaiah has never played the three in his life but we're trying to get him some minutes out there, and James Michael didn't play the four the entire game."
As you might imagine, it led to some halting play and some awkward moments. Sometimes, when Carolina wanted to get the ball out of the backcourt and run the floor quickly, a UNC guard would hit ahead to what might eventually be Hairston...but in this case was a Tar Heel big man, where it sometimes resulted in one of Carolina's 23 turnovers.
Up just ten with 11 minutes left, the five players on the floor were Paige, Hicks, Davis, Jackson Simmons and Desmond Hubert. It didn't take a lot of film study to figure that one out, and Pembroke--a well-coached team with a UNC connection due to the Ben Miller-Roy Williams association--doubled Paige to force Carolina to scramble.
A few minutes later, after the Braves had cut it to 59-53 with 8:49 remaining, the Tar Heels--with virtually their entire shooting guard depth chart dressed in suits--responded by sending Wade Moody to the scorer's table to check into the game.
The trick here is that it isn't an injury situation, where the Tar Heels get to practice without the missing players and learn some new roles. The missing trio are there in practice, so it's only in the game, with the bright lights on, that they're having to adjust.
Carolina eventually grabbed control back by reinserting Paige and Nate Britt. The freshman shot just 2-of-7 but was one of the few Tar Heels not plagued by turnover issues (six assists against just two miscues) and he also contributed five steals. Those steals are going to be especially precious in the early season, as the Tar Heels will relish any opportunity to score in transition rather than the halfcourt.
If there was an area to try and draw some reasonable conclusions, it might have been at center, where the starting job is still open.
Here is Williams' postgame assessment of the job description for his center: "If you want to play the five, you've got to rebound the ball and be a factor around the rim."
It was not an especially good night in the rebounding category for Joel James, who finished with just three boards in 16 minutes. In comparison, Desmond Hubert grabbed six in nine minutes, and Meeks picked up six in 13 minutes.
"Before the shot is taken, I have to initiate the contact, fully box out my man and then go after the ball," James said of where he needs to make rebounding improvement. "If you make that contact first you have a greater chance of rebounding the basketball."
The ever-quotable James perfectly summed up Carolina's lone public exhibition of the 2013-14 season.
"It was," he said, "a little bit awkward."
Adam Lucas is a GoHeels columnist and the editor of CAROLINA.