By R.L. Bynum

CHAPEL HILL — From the start, this didn’t feel like just another meaningless scrimmage against a Division II team.

For the first time in 18 years, North Carolina took the court in front of fans without the leadership of Hall of Fame coach Roy Williams. The Hubert Davis era began with a Friday night exhibition game in an historic program shift. One alum who loves Carolina and is passionate about the program took over for another, who was watching from a front-row seat near the risers.

Roy and Wanda Williams watched the game from first-row seats next to the tunnel where players enter the court.

For the first time in 612 days, there was a decent Smith Center crowd with 18,601 the announced attendance. There were still masks on fans and coaches, but it otherwise felt like game day was back to normal.

As with any such preseason game through the years, the No. 19 Tar Heels rolled, this time 83–55 over CIAA opponent Elizabeth City State, holding the Vikings scoreless for nearly the first six minutes of the second half.

Davis’ hard work on the recruiting trail last summer paid off well with the impressive athleticism of the newcomers, particularly Dawson Garcia.

Garcia, a sophomore who lit up UNC for 24 points and 11 rebounds in Marquette’s upset of the Tar Heels on Feb. 24 in his previous game at the Smith Center, showed a smooth shooting touch, a good inside presence and played tough defense.

“I wouldn’t say it’s the building specifically,” Garcia said. “I just say that each time I step on the floor, I’m locked in and the building obviously is super special, so it’s super fun to play.”

Garcia, who finished with 17 points and five rebounds, said the team is coming together well.

“I think my comfort level is high,” said Garcia, who had the first UNC 3-pointer. “We’ve been working out hard and practicing for two months now. So, it’s just really nice to play in front of big crowds now and just getting a whole group of guys together and playing.”

The preseason debate about who would start along with center Armando Bacot and guards Caleb Love and RJ Davis was, for at least one night, resolved as Kerwin Walton started at wing and Garcia at the 4 spot.

Under Williams, with his deference to seniors, Leaky Black would have probably started at the wing. But on Friday, he watched for the first 8:16 of the game before finally coming in, although he started the second half in place of Walton.

Black and Brady Manek are obviously used to starting. Manek started 20 of 25 games last season at Oklahoma and Black started 28 of 29 UNC games last season.

“Just because they came off the bench today doesn’t mean they’re going to come off the bench on Tuesday or next Friday,” Davis said. “I could see Brady starting. I could see Leaky starting. Brady cares about the right things.”

Bacot said that the lineup is fluid and is based on who is playing well on defense.

“We don’t really have a starting lineup,” Bacot said. “It’s based on who did the best top five defensive grades. I would say we have no starters. I can go out one game and not have a good defensive game and I won’t be starting or Caleb or just anybody.”

Many might have guessed that starting lineup, but a tight, eight-man rotation was a surprise.

Black, Manek and Justin McKoy were the only players off the bench until Anthony Harris checked in with 14:50 left in the game. That’s a contrast to Williams, who tended to play lots of players in exhibitions.

“There was no particular reason other than get some other guys who have had experience in a little earlier,” Davis said, explaining the eight-man rotation.

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Davis didn’t bring in additional players until 6:36 left in the game, when freshmen Dontrez Styles and D’Marco Dunn checked in.

There still was some of the traditional Carolina double-post action but there clearly were better angles for the big men inside with increased spacing. With all the talk about UNC’s perimeter prowess, the Tar Heels strength was inside, with Garcia’s big game as well Bacot and Manek each scoring 16. Manek had three of UNC’s four blocks.

“I just love their versatility,” Davis said. “They are the type of bigs that I’ve always liked to coach with their ability on both ends of the floor to be able to do a number of different things.”

Garcia took over at the 5 when Bacot was out, with Manek playing mostly 4 until a short stretch at the end of the first half.

UNC was 9 of 23 from 3-point range, with Garcia and Love each notching two 3s.

Possibly the most impressive statistic: the Tar Heels made 24 of 30 free throws (80%) after hitting only 66.8% last season. The last time UNC topped 70% for a season the 2018–19 team that shot 74.2%.

Hubert Davis said that his starting backcourt of Love and RJ Davis took a while to get going.

“This is the first game that they played in the Smith Center with so many fans and there’s a little bit of nervousness in that,” Hubert Davis said. “And I think it took until the second half for both of them individually to kind of settle down. I thought they played much better in the second half on both ends of the floor. I’m really proud of them.”

RJ Davis brought the energy to the offense with his speed and savvy and scored 12 points. Love scored 10 points and showed improved poise with his ball-handling and decision-making except for one bad first-half pass. Both did a good job of finishing at the basket and each had five assists.

“I think both of them are capable of playing one or two, so they’re super interchangeable,” Garcia said.

What is Love expecting this season?

“A national championship contender and expect nothing less,” he said. “I feel like we just are so focused and know what we’ve got to do to get to that point. So, I feel like everybody’s on board and we’re so deep.”

The Hubert Davis era officially begins at 7 p.m. Tuesday at home against Loyola of Maryland (ACC Network)

No. 19 UNC 83, ECSU 55

UNC lineup combinations

UNC schedule

DateScore/day, time, TVLocationOpponent
November
583–55 exhibition winHomeElizabeth City State
9Tuesday, 7, ACCNHomeLoyola Maryland
12Friday, 9, ACCNHomeBrown
16Tuesday, 8:30, CBSSNRoadCollege of Charleston
20Saturday, 4, ESPN NewsUncasville, Conn.Y – Purdue
21Sunday, 1 or 3:30, ABC or ESPNUncasville, Conn.Y – Tennessee or Villanova
23Tuesday, 7, RSNHomeUNC Asheville
December
1Wednesday, 9:15, ESPNHomeX – Michigan
5Sunday, 3, ESPNRoadGeorgia Tech
11Saturday, 8, ACCNHomeElon
14Tuesday, 7, ESPN2HomeFurman
18Saturday, 3, CBSLas VegasUCLA
21Tuesday, 7, ACCNHomeAppalachian State
29Wednesday, 7, ESPN2HomeVirginia Tech
January
1Saturday, noon, ACCNRoadBoston College
5Wednesday, 9, ESPN2RoadNotre Dame
8Saturday, 1, ESPNHomeVirginia
15Saturday, 8, ACCNHomeGeorgia Tech
18Tuesday, TBA, ESPNRoadMiami
22Saturday, 8, ACCNRoadWake Forest
26Wednesday, RSNHomeBoston College
29Saturday, 2, ACCNHomeN.C. State
31Monday, 7, ESPNRoadLouisville
February
5Saturday, 6, ESPNHomeDuke
8Tuesday, 9, ESPN or ESPN2RoadClemson
12Saturday, 2, ESPN or ESPN2HomeFlorida State
16Wednesday, 8, ACCNHomePittsburgh
19Saturday, 4, ESPN or ESPN2RoadVirginia Tech
21Monday, 7, ESPNHomeLouisville
26Saturday, 2 or 4, ESPN or ESPN2RoadN.C. State
28Monday, 7, ESPNHomeSyracuse
March
5Saturday, 6, ESPNRoadDuke
8–
12
ACC TournamentBrooklyn
CBSSN — CBS Sports Network; RSN — regional sports networks; ACCN — ACC Network;
X — ACC/Big Ten Challenge; Y — Hall of Fame Tip-Off; Z — CBS Sports Classic

Top photo via @UNC_Basketball

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