Saturday’s game against No. 11 Kentucky represented both a challenge and an opportunity for No. 18 North Carolina. Already in possession of wins over Louisville and Michigan State, a win over the Wildcats would give North Carolina victories over each of the three teams who sat atop the AP preseason poll. The challenge: keeping the young Wildcats off of the offensive boards and out of the paint.
North Carolina didn’t do a great job in the rebounding department, as Kentucky did manage to rebound 47.2% of their missed shots, and they also scored 34 points in the paint. But the Tar Heels made up for this by converting the Wildcats’ 17 turnovers into 22 points, and they outscored Kentucky by four in the paint on their way to the 82-77 victory in Chapel Hill.
While those losses to Belmont and UAB were disappointing, the fact of the matter is that North Carolina has a resume that no other team in the country can match at this time. And for all the discussion about what this team could be when (it’s probably better to use the word “if”) P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald are declared eligible, Roy Williams’ young bunch has shown signs recently that they’ll be OK with or without those two.
After a four-game stretch in which he shot 12-for-41 from the field junior forward James Michael McAdoo scored 14 points in a win over UNCG last Saturday, and he followed that performance up with a 20-point outing against Kentucky. He may have grabbed just five rebounds, and much of his scoring damage was done at the foul line (12-for-19), but McAdoo was more aggressive and North Carolina needs that from him on a consistent basis. McAdoo isn’t a “great” rebounder, and the Tar Heels will do much of their work in that area collectively anyway, but he can ill-afford to not be engaged in the action if this team is to be successful.
McAdoo wasn’t the only player to make strides on Saturday either. J.P. Tokoto scored 15 points on 7-for-10 shooting, making it three double-digit scoring efforts in the last four games. He may not be the greatest perimeter shooter (to be fair Tokoto did know down a couple on Saturday), but in order for Marcus Paige (23 points, 10-for-10 FT) to have the room he needs to operate on the perimeter another option has to emerge. Tokoto’s ability to get the basket can help North Carolina offensively, and that was certainly the case in the first half as he scored 11 of those 15 points.
Leading into Saturday’s game, much of the discussion regarding North Carolina centered around who they were without and what they can be when Hairston and McDonald return. In light of North Carolina’s win, it may be time to shift to discussing what this current group can become. And while it certainly didn’t look good earlier this season, the Tar Heels seem to be finding their way.