By Adam Lucas
Let’s just all accept that Isaiah Hicks’ second half dunk is the only play anyone will remember from Wednesday night’s 85-42 thrashing of Northern Iowa.
It was pretty awesome, to be honest. Hicks reached back with one hand and then exorcised some frustrations on the Smith Center rim and a Panther defender. It was poster-worthy:
What came right before it was too slow-developing to squeeze onto a poster—but it might have been even prettier basketball.
Start with Justin Jackson pushing the ball up the court. While everyone else is noticing his suddenly consistent scoring touch, Jackson has turned into a much more comfortable player in all elements of the game. This time, the floor opened up for him to push the ball into the frontcourt, so he did. He didn’t need to find a guard. He just moved the ball ahead himself to try and—Roy Williams will love this—take advantage of a defense that wasn’t set.
Jackson then found Kenny Williams in the far left corner across from the UNC bench. Williams knew what he was going to do before he ever received the pass, because as soon as the ball reached him, he was redirecting it to Kennedy Meeks on the block. Williams finished the night with five assists and zero turnovers—it’s too bad there wasn’t a way to give him a hockey assist (the pass that led to the pass) on that play.
Meeks had great post position to make a quick move and score, but he had other ideas. Hicks flashed to the rim, Meeks dropped the ball to him, and the Tar Heels had a no-doubt entry on the end of season highlight reel.
Much has been said about Carolina’s experience as it relates to playing in big games and the benefits it might play in March. A side benefit: this group of Tar Heels knows how their teammates like to play.
“Some of those passes are all because of that experience,” said Hicks. “In practice, you hear Coach Williams constantly saying, ‘Work together.’ And you can always hear Coach Rob on the bench during games saying, ‘Help a teammate.’ That’s the little stuff that translates over into how we play.”
It’s beautiful basketball to watch. The possession immediately after the dunk, Jackson hit Kenny Williams curling through the middle, who promptly dropped it to Meeks for an easy hoop.
Kendall Marshall used to beautifully articulate the importance of not just making the pass at the right time, but at the right spot for each individual player to score in the way he is most comfortable. This team seems to understand that nuance. That’s how Luke Maye, for example, can zip a pass to Tony Bradley at the exact moment when it was easiest for Bradley to score in the second half.
“When I see Justin coming off hard on the screen, I know how he wants to curl, so I can lead him to the basket,” Berry says. “I know where Kennedy and Isaiah want their target when they put their hand up. Knowing everyone and knowing how everyone moves is a great thing.”
Remember, this is all without the services of Theo Pinson, who has some of the best court vision on the team. Carolina’s five starters had a combined 15 assists and one turnover on Wednesday. That’s against a Northern Iowa squad that entered the game fifth in the nation in Ken Pomeroy’s statistic that measures the percentage of possessions on which a defense has forced a turnover.
It’s not just the passes they make. It’s also the passes they don’t make. You don’t typically see the Tar Heels putting a teammate in a bad position by delivering the ball late or in awkward timing. One of the biggest benefits of the team’s experience is the game simultaneously slowing down for multiple players.
Jackson was joking with Berry recently. “I feel like I’m in high school again,” the junior told his classmate.
“You’re still facing the really good defenses,” Jackson said. “But now I can see the seams better. I’m not just running around like a chicken with my head cut off. …It’s all part of maturity.”
It helps that the Tar Heels genuinely seem to like each other. More than a half-dozen of them went out to breakfast as a group on Wednesday morning, a day when classes were over and they didn’t have to hang out together. That togetherness shows on the court in the way they function as a unit rather than individuals.
“The game has definitely slowed down,” Jackson said. “Now we just have to keep it going.”