By Adam Lucas
It wasn’t the first time Joel Berry threw himself on the floor against Chattanooga that made an impression. Or the second. The game was early then, the Mocs are a legitimate NCAA Tournament team, and Berry was doing what he needed to do to help his team win. Those were explainable floor burns.
That last time, though, was the kind that made you take notice. Carolina had built a 30-point lead with under seven minutes left and not a sliver of doubt about the outcome remained in the Smith Center. And yet, there was Berry, 50 feet away from the basket, diving on the floor in pursuit of a loose ball near midcourt.
“It doesn’t matter if we’re up 40 or 50,” Berry said. “If that ball is on the floor, Coach wants it to be ours, and I’m going to play like that every single play.”
If he can really sustain that kind of effort, then let this be your mid-November warning: Carolina is going to be very good.
This isn’t just some deep reserve player trying to get in good favor with the coaches. This is the ACC Tournament MVP, a member of the All-Final Four team, a preseason All-ACC first team selection. Those credentials mean you don’t have to dive on the floor in 97-57 games. But Berry knows he doesn’t have to. He wants to.
How many times have you heard Roy Williams say it in recent years: “I shouldn’t have to coach effort.” There wasn’t one moment in Sunday’s 40 minutes when he was coaching effort, and that all started with Berry.
What happened is that Berry essentially decided what he would and wouldn’t allow the Mocs to run offensively. Think you’re going to start the offense 30 feet from the rim? Nah, he doesn’t feel like you doing that today. Try 40, or maybe 50. He thoroughly discombobulated a veteran, senior-laden team that shouldn’t rattle.
They shouldn’t, but in the Smith Center, tweaked by Berry, they unraveled, giving up 26 turnovers. It started two minutes into the game, when Berry denied Jonathan Cook-Burroughs on dribble penetration, forcing him back out to the key. Not content to have stifled the drive, he then drew an offensive foul.
The frustration proceeded from there, eventually visibly annoying Rodney Chatman, who was one of four Mocs with five turnovers.
This is some lofty company we’re about to discuss, but during the 2005 season, there were times that Raymond Felton flashed that same defensive mindset, and that’s when the eventual national champions were at their very best. We’re a long, long way from March, but that’s who Berry most resembled on Sunday. Again: Chattanooga is good. It’s just that Berry absolutely refused to let them be themselves.
“I think I did a good job picking up in the halfcourt and trying to pressure their point guard so they didn’t get into their sets easily,” Berry said. “They had a lot of motion, so I tried to pick up so they couldn’t get into it.”
His teammates notice, especially the impressionable younger ones. Seventh Woods has been a YouTube star since his mixtape first went viral four years ago. It now has over 14 million views, and in many ways he is the most modern of any Tar Heel on the roster, because he’s been forcibly living in the social media world since it thrust itself upon him.
In his six months in Chapel Hill, though, Woods has learned to appreciate something very subtle: watching Berry play defense.
“Joel is probably the most aggressive player I’ve ever played against,” Woods said. “His energy on the court feeds into me, because when I get in the game, I want to maintain that same level of energy. It feeds the whole team. He’s going to be my motivation all year.”
As a coach, that's exactly what you want your upperclassmen to do. And that’s how it happens. Somewhere there’s some kid on YouTube who doesn’t yet know he’s going to be a Tar Heel, and a couple years from now he’ll arrive in Chapel Hill and a veteran named Seventh Woods is going to tell him he needs to commit defensively the way this old guy named Joel Berry used to play.
Berry bears another similarity to Felton in that they both play a little angry. There has never been a sense of entitlement with either player, even though they might have earned taking a couple plays off at some point during their career. Berry chafes whenever the perception of Carolina being a little less hardnosed than some of their opponents.
“Each and every year, a lot of people challenge us on being physical or being competitive,” he says. “I’m trying to establish the nature that North Carolina basketball can get physical, and we’re going to be very competitive.”
Joel Berry, he of the ACC Tournament hardware, of the 20-point performance in the national championship game, is still trying to establish something about North Carolina basketball. He could be sitting on the bench laughing and waving a towel in a 40-point blowout win, and he’s trying to create a mindset.
Whether his teammates follow his lead remains to be seen. But he's already succeeding in creating a mindset for one very specific group: this season, Carolina fans, is going to be a fun one.