UNC basketball continues to build chemistry, new foundation in 90-68 victory over Lehigh

Two games into a new North Carolina basketball season, there’s reason for some cautious optimism about a Tar Heels team with a lot of new parts and one without, UNC hopes, the sort of baggage that weighed it down a season ago. Early last season, already, there were warning signs about problems to come.

Two games into this one? Plenty of signs of what might be possible, too — but in a good way for UNC.

The Tar Heels on Sunday responded to some second-half sluggishness with an 90-68 victory against Lehigh, a win in which Armando Bacot and RJ Davis each scored 22 points. For UNC, here were the most important takeaways:

1. For the Tar Heels, another solid, serviceable building block early in a long season.

Well, UNC hopes it’s a long season, at least.

Last season didn’t turn out to be so long, despite it starting with national-championship-or-bust aspirations. After becoming the first team to ever start a season ranked No. 1 and end it without making the NCAA tournament, the early part of this season is all about reestablishing the reset, developing some chemistry and learning and growing.

North Carolina’s Armando Bacot (5) muscles his way to the basket against Lehigh’s J.T. Tan (42) in the first half on Sunday, November 12, 2023 at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C.
North Carolina’s Armando Bacot (5) muscles his way to the basket against Lehigh’s J.T. Tan (42) in the first half on Sunday, November 12, 2023 at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C.

Mission accomplished in the Tar Heels’ first two games. If anything, the season-opening 86-70 victory against Radford last Monday night and this, the win against Lehigh on Sunday, were notable for their lack of noteworthiness. Very early last season, anyone paying attention could tell something was a little off — that the sum of the parts didn’t match the individual pieces.

No such early alarms (so far) two games into this season. The four scholarship returnees (Bacot, Davis, Seth Trimble and Jalen Washington) appear to have blended in well with the seven newcomers, which include five transfers and two freshmen. The chemistry, noticeably not-great early last season, doesn’t look like any kind of issue early this season.

Again, it’s two games. And two games against lesser competition (though Radford, it should be noted, is among the favorites in the Big South). The goal in these kinds of games should be to build a foundation and avoid anything too troublesome and UNC managed that, again, on Sunday.

2. That said, UNC on Sunday did encounter some sluggishness.

The Tar Heels led by nine at halftime and then took a little nap for about seven minutes or so at the start of the second half. It could be excused, perhaps, given it was a sleepy Sunday afternoon, with a lot of empty seats at Smith Center. And even among those who were here, some undoubtedly had a late Saturday night, what with UNC’s double-overtime football victory against Duke.

Suddenly, though, it was a three-point game here with about 13 minutes to play.

North Carolina coach Hubert Davis applauds his team in the first half against Lehigh on Sunday, November 12, 2023 at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C.
North Carolina coach Hubert Davis applauds his team in the first half against Lehigh on Sunday, November 12, 2023 at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C.

A repeat of some Lehigh magic, perhaps? Another triumph for the Mountain Hawks, of the Patriot League, against a mighty Tobacco Road foe? (Remember, Lehigh’s greatest basketball moment came when, as a No. 15 seed, it beat Duke in the 2012 NCAA Tournament.)

Well, not quite. After Lehigh cut UNC’s lead to three, the Tar Heels scored the next nine points to reestablish some order. And then it was a 14-2 run, to push the lead back up to 15 with 9 1/2 minutes to play. Harrison Ingram, one of UNC’s newcomers, scored five of those points during that run, with a jumper and a 3-pointer. Elliot Cadeau contributed a fastbreak layup.

The Mountain Hawks, meanwhile, could’ve used CJ McCollum.

3. UNC coach Hubert Davis continues to experiment with his bench.

What’s this?

Hubert Davis going to his bench early and often in a new season?

A new approach for the Tar Heels’ third-year head coach. For whatever reason, UNC’s bench didn’t factor into much of Davis’ first two seasons after he succeeded Roy Williams. Davis’ approach, which required his starters to carry a massive load of minutes, was a departure from how Williams more liberally divided playing time (sometimes to the chagrin of UNC fans).

Whether this continues remains to be seen. Undoubtedly, the lineups will be pared when UNC starts facing more difficult competition, and especially when it gets into ACC play. For now, though, Davis seems to be placing a genuine emphasis on lineup experimentation and getting guys meaningful time.

Nine UNC players played at least 12 minutes on Sunday. No starter, meanwhile, played more than RJ Davis’ 29 (a rested team, Hubert Davis could be learning, is a happy team). Williams often used November and December games to find out what he had and experiment. Through UNC’s first two games, at least, Davis is placing an emphasis on his bench that he rarely has up to this point in his tenure.