CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- North Carolina senior Dexter Strickland said he considers the start of ACC play next weekend a new season.
And, frankly, the Tar Heels' 79-73 win over No. 20 UNLV on Saturday -- their first win over a ranked team this season -- gave them new life.
“This game showed our potential,’’ the guard said after his team built a 15-point first-half lead, then survived the Rebels’ comeback in the second half. “... It shows people we’re a much better team than how we’ve been playing.”
The biggest question now is: Can the 10-3 Tar Heels build off it?
A few more interrogatives, as the team prepares to play at Virginia on Sunday:
1. Has UNC finally found a permanent starting center?
Possibly, but that may now be up to sophomore Desmond Hubert.
Coach Roy Williams has said repeatedly this season that he’s been waiting for one of his rotation of young big men -- Hubert, freshman Brice Johnson and freshman Joel James -- to step up and earn the starting "5" spot. Hubert, against UNLV, looks like he has pushed himself to the front of the revolving door.
Making his second straight start, the defensive-minded player scored only three points in 20 minutes, but he was more aggressive and more confident. He posted two of his three blocks in the opening minute -- including one against UNLV star freshman Anthony Bennett -- setting an active tone for the game.
In addition, he displayed a couple of rare-until-now post moves, scoring a layup on feed from P.J. Hairston, attacking the basket to get to the line on another occasion and making the second free throw of his career (although he missed the second).
Whether he keeps his starting slot may depend on whether he keeps that focused momentum.
“The good news for me -- and Desmond knows this -- he’s got about another 100 levels of intensity that he can go to,’’ Williams said after the win. “I need him to be active. I need him to be ready at all times. He’s got to have his motor going at 100 miles per hour. He can’t be going at 50. That’s been his problem, is that he’s had it going at about 50 miles per hour instead of going at 100. But he played a very effective 20 minutes for us today, and it’s something that we needed him to do.”
2. Will P.J. Hairston stay in the starting lineup?
Doubtful. Although the sophomore played terrifically in his first career start against the Rebels -- notching 15 points, four rebounds, four steals and drawing two charges (one against the muscular Bennett) -- he was in the lineup in place of junior Reggie Bullock, who was sidelined because of a mild concussion.
Williams said after the win that Bullock, prior to his injury, had been playing better than any other Tar Heel to that point -- a pretty good sign that the small forward will be back in the opening five. Plus, the coach said last week that although Hairston had been impressive off the bench, he didn’t know who the player would replace in the starting lineup because Bullock had been playing so well. Williams also said he didn’t want to go to a four-guard lineup (in which the 6-5 Hairston replaces one of UNC’s big men) all of the time, meaning starting at the "4" at this point isn't an option.
What his performance could -- and probably should -- do, though, is increase Hairston’s minutes. He played 32 on Saturday after averaging 17.6 in his previous dozen games.
3. Should free throw shooting be a concern?
Although the Tar Heels did a better job of getting to the line in the second half -- hitting 17 of 27 attempts, compared 3-of-6 in the opening 20 minutes -- they have to do a better job of making them.
Strickland and Hairston combined to convert 5-of-8 in the final 61 seconds to help seal the victory over the Rebels, but the team has to be a whole lot more accurate than that during ACC play, where there are sure to be even more tight games.
UNC is shooting 64.3 percent from the foul line this season, second to worst in the league.
4. What’s the key to getting more out of James Michael McAdoo?
Slowing down, according to Williams.
Although the sophomore continues to lead the team in points (14.8 per game), he also leads it in turnovers (40 this season). And he had a much better performance after halftime on Saturday -- leading an 8-1 mini-run after UNLV came back to take the lead, for example -- after he took a deep breath.
“He was 1-for-8 at halftime and 4-for-5 [in the second half], and the thing I told him is just slow down,’’ Williams said. “He tries to go so fast and wants to do so well. He wants to be a great player, wants to make every shot, but he just goes so fast instead of taking that extra split second that a big difference in your foundation, your balance, everything.”
5. Does this team have a leader?
That appears to be a work in progress.
While Williams said last week that Bullock and McAdoo have gotten a little bit more vocal lately, “I don’t think either one of them has gotten to the David Noel kind of status.” And that could be key entering, and during, ACC play.
Williams has often credited Noel -- a senior on UNC’s freshman laden 2005-06 team -- for being one of the best leaders he has ever coached. Take Noel or freshman Tyler Hansbrough off that squad, the coach said again last week, and that team (which went 12-4 in ACC play and won 23 games overall) wouldn’t have had nearly that success.
Williams said he always likes to have an established leader, but whether it’s needed, he doesn’t know.
“But I also think, coaches don’t really know ... what goes on in the locker room,’’ he said. “It was just so evident in 2006, because when I would ask what day it was, everybody would look at David and let David answer the question. Whereas right now, my guys don’t know whether it’s Christmas yet or New Year’s yet.”
Note: Story updated to correct number of free throws Hubert has made it his career.