North Carolina’s freshmen survived their first road test Friday night with a win at Long Beach State. Now, they’ll face some new adversity: playing three games in three days -- beginning at 6 p.m. ET Monday, against Mississippi State -- at the Maui Invitational.
“They’re going to play more minutes,” coach Roy Williams told reporters after Sunday’s news conference in Maui. “You can’t just play the starting five 35 minutes. [MSU head coach] Rick Ray may have to, because they don’t have that many guys. But for us, we’ve been playing 10, 11, 12 guys in the first half of every game, and we’ll continue to do that. But I think each game hits your freshmen, particularly, right between the eyes. They have no idea what’s going to happen.”
A few things to keep an eye on during this game at Lahaina Civic Center:
Can MSU keep up?
The Bulldogs, under first-year coach Rick Ray, want to be a team that pushes the pace, forces turnovers, scores in transition. But do they have the bodies to do it? Because of junior guard Jalen Steele’s broken wrist and the suspension of forward Colin Borchert for violating team rules (all after freshman Jacoby Davis and Andre Applewhite were lost for the season because of knee injuries), the Bulldogs will have only six healthy scholarship players.
Sophomore forward Roquez Johnson, who is averaging 17.0 points and five rebounds, will continue to try to lead the three-games-in-three days effort.
The Tar Heels finally started connecting on 3-pointers at Long Beach State, hitting six during a pivotal 23-7 second-half run. But sophomore P.J. Hairston (4-for-14 on 3-pointers for the season) and redshirt junior Leslie McDonald (2-for-6), in particular, need to get (and stay) sharper off the bench. Not just for a scoring boost, but a confidence boost.
A lot of UNC freshman talk has centered around point guard Marcus Paige and big man Joel James, but forward Brice Johnson has been impressive, as well. He’s averaging 9.3 points (third on the team) and 5.7 rebounds off the bench, and he started the second half at Long Beach State. UNC’s coaches have been worried about his size (6-9, 187), especially against more muscular teams. But he keeps coming up big -- and may play bigger minutes if that continues.
Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.