The story could be, I suppose, what Carolina's 2012-13 basketball team did on Friday night against Shaw. For one thing, they won, 81-54. It was just an exhibition, but if you were in the Smith Center crowd and had nervous memories of an exhibition loss to EA Sports before the 2001-02 campaign, then you can appreciate the victory.
Individual Tar Heels had solid games. James Michael McAdoo had a team-high 16 points to go with a team-high 8 rebounds. Joel James had 13 points, shot 6-for-7 from the field and did not accidentally maul anything smaller than him, such as the Davie Poplar. Leslie McDonald returned after almost 18 months away and was able to take a second after substituting into the game in the first half to marvel, "I'm really back." Then he went out and quietly scored 12 points.
All of that is good. Friday was about seeing those things and also taking in, for the first time, those things you'll be taking for granted in a month or so. Wow, those argyle sleeves on the shooting shirts are something. Yes, that really is Hubert Davis sitting on the Carolina bench. These snazzy new LED boards are nice, but now the brain has to be trained to look somewhere different for the score. It's preseason in the stands, too, you know.
More intriguing, though, might be not what the Tar Heels did, but what they could do. Just as you started mumbling to yourself, "Well, Marcus Paige doesn't throw the ball ahead like Kendall," there was the Iowa freshman zipping a pass a good 40 feet to Reggie Bullock, who caught it and in one motion delivered it to Brice Johnson for a dunk. Less than a minute later, the play was reprised, this time with Paige hitting ahead to J.P. Tokoto, who unselfishly found McAdoo for another dunk in what no less an authority than Roy Williams called "maybe the play of the game."
The 2012 Tar Heels were still there, looming over the precedings with Kendall Marshall, John Henson, Tyler Zeller and Harrison Barnes now part of the in-game "I'm a Tar Heel" video rather than breaking the huddle near the sideline. It still feels a little weird to see them on the screen rather than on the court.
Believe it or not, there will come a time when we know Paige's little tendencies the same way we know Marshall's upright dribble, or Brice Johnson's quirks the same way we know that John Henson isn't really lefthanded, he just happens to play basketball that way. Right now, we don't know them. As the Tar Heels shot around before the game, the Lennie Rosenbluth-aged lady behind me asked, "Which one is Joel James?" I pointed him out. "He's not as big as I was expecting," she said.
Given James's 6-foot-10, 260-pound roster listing ,I must have looked a little surprised. "What size were you expecting?" I asked.
"Shaq, I guess," she replied.
That's what Friday was about--taking those expectations we've built up since that disappointing night in St. Louis and starting to roll them into reality.
Friday was about seeing that window to 2013 open for the first time. Late in the second half, after Carolina had already wrestled away control of the game, Bullock and James ran a nifty pick-and-roll that concluded with Bullock finding the freshman mere inches from the rim. It was a beautiful play, the kind you could immediately imagine working at some pivotal moment in a hostile environment sometime in January.
But the foul came before James could drop the ball through the hoop, sending him to the free throw line for two shots rather than a three-point play opportunity.
Near midcourt, Bullock turned away from the rim and clinched his fists. "He's got to finish that!" he mouthed. Ah, freshmen.
After the game, he chuckled when recalling the play. "Joel played well, and he's still learning," Bullock said. "As the season progresses, we'll learn each other's tendencies, and we'll finish plays like that."
Dexter Strickland was the first player out of the locker room to do postgame interviews with the collected media-usually a sure sign of someone who needs to get moving quickly because he has plans for the night. As it turned out, he did indeed have big plans.
He answered every question in usual congenial Strickland fashion. As the last tape recorder shut down, he turned to a team staffer. "Hey," he said, "what time are they clearing the court? Got to get some shots up."
It was close to 10 p.m. on a Friday, the season opener was two weeks away, and there was lots of work to do.