College Basketball: What We Learned from the Carrier Classic
The 2011-12 college basketball season kicked off Friday night with a whole host of exciting matchups, including the inaugural Carrier Classic, played aboard the flight deck of the USS Carl Vinson in San Diego.
The North Carolina Tar Heels, ranked No. 1 in the nation in every major poll by near-unanimous votes and early favorites to win the National Championship, squared off against the upstart Michigan State Spartans in the first game of the year for both teams.
The Tar Heels emerged victorious by a score of 67-55, with Harrison Barnes scoring 17 points to lead the team. Draymond Green led the Spartans with 13 points and 18 rebounds.
This game offered a decent look at the coming season for both teams. Beyond the basic box score, let's look at what we learned from Friday night's season opener.
North Carolina Needs to Avoid Slow Starts
Although North Carolina won by a comfortable margin when all was said and done, they clearly did not appear to have their usual flow at all points throughout the game.
In fact, the Tar Heels started out rather slowly, trailing by a handful of points for large stretches of the first half and allowing a 10-0 run in the early minutes of the second half.
At times they appeared somewhat dysfunctional, especially in the first half, as Michigan State seemed to have their way in the paint, grabbing both points and rebounds.
Perhaps this was just early season jitters; after all, they got off to another slow start against UNC-Pembroke in their exhibition opener on October 28 before going on to win 100-58.
Regardless, the Tar Heels will have to find a way to come out of the gate strong and stifle opponents by the time ACC play rolls around; Michigan State may have let them recover and go on to victory, but Duke certainly won't.
Draymond Green Remains a Force to Be Reckoned with in the Paint
Draymond Green is back for his senior year in East Lansing, and on Friday night he showed that he was a ready to step into a leadership role and take charge of the Spartans this year.
Green managed a double against the Tar Heels, scoring 13 points and grabbing a career-high 18 rebounds. That's no easy task, especially considering the tough, dynamic Tar Heel frontcourt led by Tyler Zeller and John Henson. Green's efforts helped the Spartans out-rebound the Tar Heels 42-31.
Despite the loss, Draymond Green once again demonstrated his astounding abilities to use his strength to score and rebound, and will certainly cause problems for opponents down the stretch, especially against a slightly softer Big Ten.
Has Jared Sullinger finally met his match? Maybe not exactly, but it'll be interesting to find out.
John Henson Has Come into His Own in the Tar Heels' Frontcourt
John Henson sure looks happy in this photo.
His performance last night certainly gave him reason to be. With 12 points, seven rebounds and nine blocks, Henson has finally established as a stalwart of the front-court after two seasons of continued growth.
After struggling as a freshman during North Carolina's disastrous 2009-10 campaign, Henson surged to the forefront last season, averaging 11.7 points per game and 10.1 rebounds per game.
He finally showcased his abilities as big man at both ends of the floor and earning the ACC's Defensive Player of the Year Award. His tough defense last night turned defensive stops into offensive opportunities, pushing the Tar Heels to victory.
Although he may not block nine shots every night, look for Henson to maintain or improve on last night's scoring and rebound effort as the season goes on. A repeat as ACC Defensive Player of the Year is a very real possibility.
Michigan State's Young Talent Will Pay Dividends Down the Road
Michigan State has their work cut out for them this year, as they will have to fill gaps left by Durrell Summers, Kalin Lucas and Korie Lucious, among others.
For the Spartans to regain their 2009 form, they'll have to rely on the likes of Branden Dawson, Keith Appling, Adreian Payne and a host of freshmen and sophomores to fill those gaps.
They'll have Draymond Green to look up to for senior leadership and, if all goes well, the Spartans can be contenders in the Big Ten if the underclassmen can improve on their skill sets.
This will be especially true if Branden Dawson, who scored 10 points and grabbed seven rebounds against the Tar Heels, can learn to avoid the late-season collapses that doomed Michigan State last season.
North Carolina Is a Deep Team That Doesn't Need to Relay on One Man
When you take a quick look at the box score for this game, you'll note that the scoring was very evenly distributed across the five starters, plus the handful of points scored by the bench.
This is arguably the number one thing that the Tar Heels have going for them this year; they're an extremely deep team that can distribute the scoring load and take pressure off of Harrison Barnes.
Not only that, each player has a unique skill set that complements the other members of the team: where Harrison Barnes scores from the perimeter, Tyler Zeller and John Henson get boards, block shots and score in the paint. Kendall Marshall handles the distributing, of course.
This depth and breadth of talent will take North Carolina straight through the ACC this year and deep into the Big Dance. It appears to be a National Championship-or-bust this year, no doubt because the Tar Heels have all the talent and coaching in the world to do it.