North Carolina begins its 58th year of Atlantic Coast Conference competition Saturday afternoon when it takes the court at John Paul Jones Arena on the campus of the University of Virginia for a matchup against the Cavaliers.
Take a look at several key topics related to the Tar Heels and the start of league play this weekend in our first regular season edition of the UNC Basketball Notebook.
This will be a regular feature on Fridays throughout the remainder of basketball season.
OFF THE BENCH
North Carolina has been getting solid production of late from its bench, as players like Reggie Bullock, Leslie McDonald, Justin Knox, Kendall Marshall and Justin Watts have definitely been doing their part.
Heading into Saturday's contest in Charlottesville the Tar Heels are averaging 29.3 points per game from its bench---including 7.9 points per game from McDonald, 7.7 points per game from Bullock, and 6.4 points per game from Knox.
"I've always said strong teams can make substitutions and have people help you. And I think that's what our guys did tonight. The guys that came in off the bench added something to it, and I think that was important to us," said head coach Roy Williams.
"I think that when you make substitutions, you want to have some positive things happen. and I think our guys (are doing) that," he added. "Again, it looks better when the ball goes in the basket. And we've had two straight games where it does go in."
"We're just gelling as a team right now---that's one of the things Coach likes about us right now," said Bullock. "He (Coach Williams) just wants us to play as a team while we're out there, get rebounds, push the ball in transition and defend, and we've just been doing that."
"The team that's coming off the bench, we're basically just coming out and bringing energy, moving the ball, and just showing the first squad that it's basically easy to move the ball and get scores. So we're just playing as a team out there, and it's going good," Bullock added.
"I'm just out there with four other guys trying to make the best of it," said Marshall.
"My teammates, they do a great job of finishing. I know a point guard's duties are to give them the best opportunities they can to score."
The transition play of the reserve Tar Heels was typified by one particular play against Saint Francis (Pa.) this past weekend---a play that got Coach Williams' attention.
"We talk so much about transition---once we have the ball to run as hard as you can---and Reggie just ran past people and Kendall got him the ball and he got a lay-up. Now we've got to be able to do that a little more consistently and then I'll really be pleased," he said.
"Coach loves when we run the floor, so we're running the floor, defending, doing basically what he tells us to do and we're just bringing energy," Bullock said.
Marshall, who has a 2.5-to-1 assists-to-turnovers ratio (60 assists, 24 turnovers), says he's trying to learn things from watching teammate Larry Drew II while he's on the court.
"I'm learning a lot. Larry, he's great at knowing what plays to run for which players to get them in position to score. I'm trying to get better at that and learn from him doing that," Marshall said.
Coach Williams makes no bones out of the fact that he's hopeful the efforts currently being made by Carolina's reserve players will continue to motivate the starters.
"If it doesn't they're not human. You've got to be an idiot if that doesn't push you," Williams said.
'STRICK FINDING HIS PLACE
As North Carolina heads into ACC play they're looking to get continued production out of sophomore 'two' guard Dexter Strickland, who heads to Charlottesville averaging 9.6 points per game.
"I think at this point everybody knows their role, and everybody knows how to play with each other," said Strickland about UNC entering league play. "I think that's very important recognizing who you're on the floor with and knowing your roles on the court. I think we're pretty comfortable with that."
The Tar Heels have settled into a nice rotation at the 'two' guard position with Strickland and McDonald, who between the two of them are eating up just under 39 out of a possible 40 minutes per game at that position.
While McDonald is known for being more of an outside shooting threat, Strickland is earning a reputation for speed and defensive awareness.
He leads the Tar Heels in steals (22), and his 24 defensive rebounds ranks second on the UNC roster among guards behind only Drew.
"I think we feel more confident knowing our roles and stuff like that---Leslie being the shooter, and me being the defensive player," Strickland said. "It starts on defense and the transition to offense and stuff like that. Just knowing what we have to do to get a win."
"So I think that's my role for the team---good defense and getting to the basket, trying to get easy baskets. If my drive is off, just dish it to 'Z' (Tyler Zeller) or to John (Henson) and stuff like that, just trying to help my team win. My role is to help win," Strickland added.
One of Strickland's plays against Saint Francis (Pa.) last weekend was particularly noteworthy. Coach Williams mentioned it after the game.
"In the first half when Dexter chased the ball down right in front of the scorer's table and got it and went down and tried to dunk it and got fouled---Ty Lawson and Dexter Strickland are the only two guys who would have gotten that ball---ever," Williams said.
"That's a lot of gift that he (Strickland) has, but it's also the effort, to put it out there," Williams added.
"I think that was a great opportunity for me to get a steal on defense and get a bucket and help my team out to get more buckets and stuff like that. Just little things like that will help us win more games," Strickland said.
"I just feel honored (to get mentioned by Coach Williams). I try to go out there and all I'm trying to do is help my team win. So whatever I've got to do, I'm going to do it," he added.
"Dexter, he plays hard every single possession. He's probably the hardest (working) of any teammate I've ever had, and I just try to take that from him," said Marshall.
TURNING THE PAGE?
Certainly Carolina's recent streak of six wins in seven ball games is reason for hope for UNC as they look to get off to a fast start in the conference this winter, but no coach can ever truly know how his team is going to perform in a conference setting until they're actually in it.
"You don't ever know if you're ready until they get out there and start playing the games," said Williams. "We've played a good schedule, played some good teams, played some games on the road, so I think we've done about everything we can to get prepared."
"I would have liked to have played better in some of those games, there's no question about that, but I think we're looking forward to it (starting conference games)," he added.
"I think it's all about team chemistry. Just knowing how to play with one another is very important. It's all a process, but it can only get better," said Strickland.
When asked about which players had stepped up as leaders on this UNC team, Strickland indicated a couple of juniors who have been on the team as long as anyone else, but he added that everyone in their own way is stepping up to provide leadership.
"Everybody is a leader. We lead by actions. If I had to pick two leaders right now, it would probably be (Tyler) Zeller and Justin Watts," he said.
"I'd pick those guys because they're not just leaders on the court, but they're leaders off the court also. So that's very important to our team."
Aside of the Texas game, in which UNC clearly didn't finish the way it would have liked, the Tar Heels have played like a NCAA Tournament-caliber team since their struggles in Puerto Rico and the Illinois game.
Coach Williams sees a team that continues to stay focused on the right things and is working hard to meet its objectives.
"We just didn't finish the Texas game, but we are getting better. The work ethic has been there. The desire has been there," he said.
"The efficiency of our work has gotten better, the intensity of our work has gotten better, the concentration of our work has gotten better, so as long as you have those things then you have a tremendous opportunity to improve throughout the course of the year."
"I don't know that I would say we've turned a corner where we want to be by any means, but I do think that we are getting better, and I think it's showing up on the court," he continued.