And then, at last, it was college basketball season again. When last we saw it, North Carolina was beginning to celebrate its sixth NCAA championship in the final moments of a victory against Gonzaga. The buzzer sounded. The confetti fell (eventually). The Tar Heels cut down the nets.
That was a Monday in early April, the final night of the NCAA tournament. Now it’s early-ish November. UNC begins the season against Northern Iowa on Friday at the Smith Center. These are the questions whose answers will come to define the Tar Heels during the next four (or five) months:
1. After winning the 2017 national championship, what’s the inspirational force this season?
As it turned out, the 2016 national championship game represented a good-news, bad-news sort of scenario for the Tar Heels. First the bad, which is obvious enough: They were on the other side of one of the great endings in NCAA tournament history, and that meant they walked off the court amid heartbreak, and soul-crushing despair, after losing at the buzzer against Villanova.
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It was the kind of defeat that can haunt dreams for a lifetime. But now the good: That loss provided the ultimate motivational fuel and, indeed, the Tar Heels last season drove themselves with the single idea of returning to the national championship game and, this time, finishing the job. Which is exactly what they did.
So what now? After completing that story arc of redemption, what’s left?
That’s one of the most interesting questions facing UNC, and especially its veteran nucleus of Joel Berry, Theo Pinson and Luke Maye. Those three, especially, have been there, done that. They’ve been to two consecutive national championship games. They all played instrumental roles along the way last season. And now they’re tasked with leading UNC to wherever it goes next.
When you accomplish a long-held goal, when you realize a lifelong dream, what comes after? That’s the question Berry and others will have to answer in the coming months.
2. How do the Tar Heels replicate the team chemistry that has been so important the past two seasons?
You see it all the time in college basketball: Teams with enviable talent that, for whatever reason, just never quite come together. Last season, that description applied to Duke, which didn’t survive the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. It applied, too, to N.C. State, which labored through an abysmal season despite the presence of Dennis Smith Jr., arguably the most talented player in the ACC.
Then there’s been UNC. The Tar Heels haven’t been the most talented team the past two seasons. They’ve not been home to any of the celebrated one-and-dones who receive the most national attention. But they’ve had the kind of chemistry, both on the court and off, that can turn a mediocre collection of talent into a good team, and a good collection of talent into a great one.
Doesn’t that describe the Tar Heels the past two seasons? Good talent, but great, national-championship-caliber teams – ones that were tight-knit, and filled with players who understood and embraced their roles. No one these past two years was off doing his own thing. No one was playing outside of the team concept.
In college basketball, that can be a rare dynamic, and it’s one of the reasons why UNC has had such rare success these past couple of years: Because everyone has bought in. Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson helped create that culture during their time at UNC, and Berry and Pinson carried it over last season and will attempt to do so this season.
But still, there are a lot of newcomers. Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks and Nate Britt – all steadying forces as seniors last season – are gone. So is Justin Jackson, who earned ACC Player of the Year honors while playing his role exactly the way coach Roy Williams needed him to. So how do the new pieces mesh with the old? What’s the chemistry going to be like? It’s another important question.
3. What happens on the inside?
In terms of X’s and O’s, on-the-court developments, this is the most important question facing the Tar Heels: How do they transition from an experienced, dependable duo in Meeks and Hicks to a trio of freshman, none of whom were all that highly regarded coming out of high school. This is the question, more than any other, that is causing Williams the most stress (if he’s feeling any of that these days).
Neither Meeks nor Hicks were cut from the same mold as some of UNC’s other best big men under Williams – guys like Sean May and Tyler Hansbrough and Tyler Zeller. But Meeks and Hicks, at their best, were very good players, and both played important roles in the Final Four in April, what with Meeks’ monster performance in the semifinal and Hicks’ critical shot late against Gonzaga.
And now they’re gone and UNC has no experience on the inside unless you count Maye, who isn’t really a traditional post player, anyway. Clearly, the Tar Heels are going to be reliant on the freshmen trio of Garrison Brooks, Brandon Huffman and Sterling Manley. Brooks will start, by all preseason indications, with Huffman and Manley coming off the bench.
Basketball, at all levels, has become more of a free-flowing, perimeter-oriented game, but Williams isn’t going to change what he does. He’s going to emphasize going into the post. He’s going to value back-to-the-basket big guys. He’s going to want to do what his best teams have always done, which is to say that he’s going to want to work the ball inside.
Brooks is farther along than Huffman or Manley, but Brooks can’t carry the burden by himself. He’s going to need some help. Will Maye take on a more post-oriented role? How soon can Huffman and Manley become regular, reliable contributors? What happens on the inside is going to be the most interesting on-court development to follow at UNC this season.
4. But, that said, how much small ball will Williams use?
This is the corollary to question No. 3. With things as unsettled as they are on the inside, UNC is going to have to play small – or at least smaller than Williams would prefer – pretty often this season. The question is how often, and with how much success? How comfortable will Williams really be using such an approach?
Williams considered the question recently at ACC basketball media day: Has he evolved in how he views playing small? Has he changed?
“No,” Williams said. “I had three NBA coaches this summer, three, tell me, ‘I hope you keep playing the same way you’re playing.’ ”
It was an illuminating answer, because not only did Williams reject the idea that he’s evolved when it comes to playing small, but he also provided an anecdote – the feedback from NBA coaches – that, in his mind, validates his traditional approach. Even so, Williams knows he’s going to have to play small at times this season. There’s no getting around it, given UNC’s limitations inside.
You can expect to see guard and wing-dominated lineups, ones in which Maye might, for UNC, be the closest thing to a center on the court. The Tar Heels went small by necessity back in 2013, when P.J. Hairston and Reggie Bullock made the Tar Heels a formidable perimeter team – but one not known for its size or production inside.
This year could be the same sort of thing. A lineup of Berry, freshman Jalek Felton, Cameron Johnson, Pinson and Maye could be fast, and fun to watch. The question is whether it would rebound effectively enough for Williams to use it with any kind of regularity. For Williams, that’s always the key when he thinks about going small: Will the Tar Heels rebound?
If the smaller lineups prove they can, Williams will feel much more comfortable using them.
5. How does Joel Berry handle being The Man?
Well, Joel Berry has been the man before. Should make that clear to start. He earned ACC tournament MVP honors during his sophomore season. He was named the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player last year, after he helped lead UNC to the national championship while playing on two bad ankles. And so Berry knows all about being the man. But being “The Man”? That’s somewhat new.
His sophomore year, Berry had a lot of help. He played alongside Paige and Brice Johnson, among others, and when opposing defenses paid attention to those other guys, Berry often benefited. His junior year, Berry had a lot of help. He played alongside Jackson and Meeks and Hicks, among others, and when opposing defenses paid attention to those other guys, Berry often benefited.
Berry will have help this season, too, from Pinson and Maye and Cameron Johnson and others. But, still, there can be no doubt, either: This is Berry’s team, just as the 2015-16 team belonged to Paige and Johnson, and just as the 2016-17 team belonged to a larger nucleus of which Berry was certainly a part. Now that nucleus has shrunk, and Berry’s role will expand in all respects.
He’ll need to be more of a leader than he has been. He’ll need to be even more productive on the court than he has been. And he’ll become more of a focal point of opposing defenses than he has been. Berry’s senior season is off to something of a dubious start, given he’ll miss the first two games, at least, while recovering from a broken hand he endured after punching a door.
He did that after losing in a video game and, really, the moment speaks to a couple of things. Youthful foolishness, yes … but also to Berry’s never-quit competitiveness. If he takes losing a video game that hard, imagine how Berry will react to UNC’s first loss this season, whenever that comes. It has been a while, after all, since the Tar Heels experienced defeat.
Berry has been such an integral part of his team’s success the past two seasons, but if he went through a difficult stretch, if he played poorly, the Tar Heels usually had enough to compensate for that. The margin is thinner this season. As Berry goes, so too will UNC. He doesn’t have Jackson by his side anymore, or Paige or Brice Johnson. But Berry does have his inner will, which might be enough.
And five more, quickly now:
6. Where does the offensive rebounding come from?
One of the more under-appreciated facts of UNC’s past two Final Four teams: They’ve been some of Williams’ best offensive rebounding teams. The Tar Heels were third nationally in offensive rebounding percentage in 2016, and they led the nation last year thanks in no small part to Meeks. Without Meeks – without any proven big guy – where do the Tar Heels turn for offensive rebounding? Maye is an obvious answer. Pinson, too, put on about 12 to 15 pounds to help him maneuver around inside. But this will be a group effort.
7. Speaking of Pinson, can he play more of a leading role?
It’s not a stretch to suggest that Pinson will go down among the most beloved players in school history – and certainly in this era of UNC basketball history. He’s a fan favorite. He’s a teammate favorite. He’s a Williams favorite. Spend any length of time around Pinson, and he’ll make you smile. On the court, Pinson has an opportunity to build on his legacy. His versatility, and ability to play four positions, is one of the Tar Heels’ greatest assets.
8. How does Cameron Johnson fit in?
Johnson is not going to be Justin Jackson, nor should anyone expect him to be. There are some similarities, though. Both are scorers. Johnson, like Jackson, is a taller guy who can shoot from the perimeter. But that’s about where the similarities end. Remember, too, that it took a while for Jackson to find his way at UNC. Johnson, who transferred from Pitt, might face a similar challenge despite having already played for two seasons in the ACC. He’s in a new system, with new teammates.
9. What does Luke Maye’s encore look like?
Maye could never make another shot in his life, and he’ll still always be remembered for what he did late last March in Memphis against Kentucky. The shot he made then instantly took its place alongside the most memorable in school history. Maye savors that moment, but he wants to move past it. He often spoke about that with reporters during the preseason – his desire to be known for much more than that one moment. Now comes his opportunity.
10. What to expect from Jalek Felton?
Felton is the nephew of former UNC point guard Raymond Felton, and Williams said a while back that Felton just might be UNC’s most talented player. But Williams also said that Felton didn’t undersand defense, focus or hard work, and until a player understands those things he’s not going to gain Williams’ trust, and therefore won’t play as often as his talent might otherwise suggest. If Felton grasps those concepts, he and Berry could, by the end of the season, become one of the ACC’s most formidable backcourts.