CHARLOTTE -- North Carolina entered Friday's Round of 64 matchup against Long Island with only 50 combined games of NCAA tournament experience on the roster. Juniors Tyler Zeller and Justin Watts are all that remain from the 2009 squad that went on to capture the national championship in Detroit. These Tar Heels did not get the benefit of any kind of training period; they have been forced to learn on the job. Perhaps it is one of the hidden benefits of Roy Williams being hesitant to call early timeouts. Letting the players fight through adversity in the natural flow of the game forces mental toughness, and requires players to make decisions on their own. It forces them to grow up.
Give credit to Long Island It refused to be scared by the high-octane Tar Heels. Running and scrapping with the Heels from the very beginning, the Blackbirds put on a show for their fans who made the trip. In a 4 ½-minute stretch late in the first half, Long Island went on a 19-6 run that was sparked by four Tar Heel turnovers, a couple of threes, and some forced jump shots.
Even when the score was tied at 33, Williams did not panic. Outside of two official timeouts, Williams let his Tar Heels battle back into the game. If the 2011 edition of UNC is going to advance into the second weekend, it needs to figure it out on the go. But if this is active training, then one employee earned a promotion on Friday.
His name is John Henson, and he might as well be the boss.
Shattering his previous career high of 19 in the first half, Henson finished with 28 points, 11 rebounds, and 6 blocks. The production had a positive effect on his performance from the charity stripe as well. Henson, a 50.3 percent free-throw shooter on the season, finished 8 of 10 from the line. Henson has been praised all season for his presence around the basket, even being named the ACC Defensive Player of the Year. "It's nice we could build his confidence scoring-wise," freshman Harrison Barnes said. "[Henson] does so much for us defensively, it was good to get him going."
Henson was not the only one growing up on the court Friday night. Barnes, recently named a Freshman All-American, calmly added 24 points and 16 rebounds. Scoring has not been a problem for Barnes recently (averaging 21.8 points in his last six games), but the rebounds were a new career high.
"Coach wanted me to be more aggressive today," Barnes said. "He knew that come tournament time I needed to rebound more because we can't always rely on John [Henson] and [Tyler Zeller]."
Speaking of career highs, Zeller hopped in on the fun as well. His 32 points were also a new career high. Zeller only got 7 of his points in the first half, his inside presence served as a twisting dagger for a Long Island team that just had no answers for North Carolina's length inside.
|UNC's Tyler Zeller takes full advantage of his size and skill while scoring 32 points against Long Island. (US Presswire)|
The 100-point explosion was also beneficial to Kendall Marshall. The Tar Heels' freshman point guard did not have a great ACC tournament "for him," coach Roy Williams described the day before the game. But in a high-scoring game like Friday with so many possessions, Marshall's 31 minutes of experience are comparable to two games for some teams. Marshall bounced back, continuing his maturation and finished with 10 assists and just two turnovers.
"I think the young guys are still learning, but me and [Tyler Zeller] are trying to be leaders for them, show them the ropes a little bit," explained Justin Watts. "But then again, me and 'Z' are still learning. It's a team effort and we are at it together, getting better."
With their length and athleticism, North Carolina can compete with about anyone left in the tournament. But there is still some room to grow before you could consider them a contender to knock off the Buckeyes.
But it wasn't all pretty for the Tar Heels, and there is still plenty of training left. The Tar Heels shot an abysmal 17.6 percent from behind the 3-point line, and also turned the ball over 18 times. Not to mention giving up 87 points in a game, when they have been holding opponents to just 67.8 on the season.
But the Tar Heels have shown they don't need much time to improve. Whether it be a half, a game, or the entire 2010-2011 season; North Carolina figures it out as it goes. But just like any new employee, there will be some mistakes. They know that as they advance in the tournament, the margin for error grows smaller. There are still improvements to be made, and they will have to do it on the fly before Sunday's matchup against Washington.
That's OK though, because learning on the job seems to be one of the things this team does best.