The North Carolina Tar Heels' first goal of nonconference play has been achieved. They knocked out the Louisville Cardinals on Sunday 93-84 to bring home the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament trophy.
But UNC is still a long way from getting out of the nonconference gauntlet that Roy Williams has lined up, and there are still quite a few goals that remain. I have lined up the biggest, most impactful goals that will determine how the rest of the season plays out.
Naturally, the ultimate goal for North Carolina would be to go undefeated over the next eight nonconference games. The team shouldn't settle for anything less.
However, a realistic goal would be to ensure at least one more major win before heading into conference play. That would mean a victory over No. 1 Michigan State or No. 3 Kentucky.
A win over either of those teams, along with the Louisville game, should give Carolina a nice boost in the RPI rankings, which factor into tournament seeding at the end of the season.
Last year, UNC tanked against most of its ranked opponents, which led to a disappointing eighth seed in the tourney despite a strong finish.
The Tar Heels will need to capitalize on these nonconference challenges because the RPI doesn't care if they don't have the services of P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald. Taking down a second top-10 opponent should also give these young men the confidence boost they'll need heading into ACC play.
Currently, only half of the remaining nonconference games will be against teams above .500 (UAB, Michigan State, Kentucky and Texas). The remaining four teams have a combined record of 8-16.
This should be a prime opportunity to get seldom-used power forward Isaiah Hicks into the game.
The freshman has unfortunately been buried deep on the bench due to the overabundance of big men on the Tar Heels' roster. Hicks has averaged just 8.2 minutes per game this season and only has a total of 20 over the last three.
Through 41 minutes of action, he has totaled eight points, seven rebounds, three assists and four blocks.
While those numbers aren't bad, they aren't great, either. Hicks simply hasn't proven himself enough to earn minutes over the other bigs. And, frankly, he still needs time to adjust to the college game.
Hicks came to Chapel Hill a raw basketball player but an extremely gifted athlete—similar to James Michael McAdoo and Brice Johnson. Somehow, he needs to get some time on the floor to find his comfort zone, and the four should-be blowouts will afford him that opportunity.
If the Tar Heels don't overlook these teams or squander big leads as they did last season.
In a few columns this season, I have mentioned the importance of Roy Williams starting his best group. In my opinion, that would be Marcus Paige, J.P. Tokoto, James Michael McAdoo, Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks.
At times, that strategy has been misunderstood. So let me clear things up a bit.
Britt is averaging 23.6 minutes and Joel James is getting 12.4 minutes per game. I do not want those minutes reduced. I just think the best defenders and scorers should be on the floor to start the game.
It's imperative that James and Britt continue to get as much time on the floor as possible because they both need to grow. And they both need to be confident in their abilities for the Tar Heels to be successful down the road.
Britt seems to have found his way against Louisville this weekend. He was driving, dishing and scoring the way he should with his quickness and vision. Hopefully he can build off of that and continue to grow his confidence over the next month.
James hasn't had that big game to rest his hat on yet, but he has looked much-improved since I dropped the first report card of the season last week. The big man hauled in six rebounds in just 11 minutes of action against Louisville.
He had a total of eight over the previous three games.
Before being surprised by a trimmed-up Meeks, I thought James would be the best solution at center for the Tar Heels. But right now, Meeks' natural instincts are out-weighing James' physique. The sophomore still has some catching up to do mentally.
Once he puts it together, though, James will be a beast.
As for J.P. Tokoto, playing time hasn't been an issue for the small forward. He is averaging 27.4 minutes per contest and has started in each of the Tar Heels' five games. However, struggles with his free-throw and jump-shooting have the sophomore hanging his head.
Tokoto is 14-of-39 from the floor, 1-of-7 behind the arc and 12-of-31 at the stripe.
Perhaps a few blowouts will allow him to shoot without the repercussions of a miss. The way he shorts just about every free throw is a good indicator that he is over-thinking the shot. He's also rushing his jumper, which is completely throwing off his mechanics.
Hopefully Coach Williams recognizes this and will keep Tokoto playing late into the blowouts. The kid's a baller; he just needs a confidence boost.
Most of us—myself included—are rushing for Roy Williams to settle on a rotation. It seemed to take too long last season, and the Tar Heels have some big-time games coming up, as previously mentioned.
The nerves are kicking in.
But, in all reality, it doesn't become imperative until ACC competition tips off on January 5. Where they finish in the ACC is equally—if not more—important than RPI rankings when it comes to tourney seeding. In fact, with the loaded conference this season, the Tar Heels should be facing plenty of ranked opponents over the final two months of the season anyway.
This means UNC needs to be fine-tuned and ready to go, and a consistent rotation will be imperative. Continuity is the key to chemistry.
Though, getting a couple players back could complicate things a bit. But it would be a complication Coach Williams would surely welcome.
While getting P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald back is out of the coaches' and players' hands, it is a goal—and, hopefully, an attainable one.
No matter how some folks want to spin the win over Louisville (ESPN Insider subscription required), it was a big one for the Tar Heels. It wasn't just a poor performance by Louisville; it was a group of players playing as one and living up to their true potential.
And the Tar Heels did it shorthanded.
Imagine what this team would be capable of with a more complete Hairston than the one that averaged 18 points per game as a starter last season. Or a fifth-year senior in McDonald, who has been waiting patiently for his opportunity to shine.
These two players would add the experience and shooting the Tar Heels desperately need to challenge for the ACC title and make a deep run in the NCAA tournament. Without them, Paige is the only viable weapon from the perimeter, which puts more defensive focus on the inside guys.
Having more shooters would spread the floor and make it even more difficult for defenses to stop Carolina's bevy of bigs.
If the Tar Heels gain confidence and pick up another big win without these guys, look out if and when they come back. This could be the most lethal squad in the country.
Chuckle at that statement while you can. I assure you it is no joke.
Rollin Yeatts is the lead columnist for North Carolina Tar Heels basketball on Bleacher Report. He also hosts a weekly all-sports video podcast at TSB Sports. Visit his B/R profile for more information.