By Adam Lucas
Before he knew how it would turn out, Roy Williams offered a clear-eyed assessment of where his team would be after three games in Maui.
“You don’t have any false ideas about your team when you play in Maui,” he said at a pre-Maui Invitational press conference a week ago. “You know about your team once you’ve been here for three days.”
Of course, Williams hardly could have guessed last Sunday that by Wednesday night he would be trying to calm expectations that exploded after his team’s undefeated run through the tournament in which they never trailed.
“I’m not going to go out and make my reservations for the Final Four,” Williams said after the win over Wisconsin. “I’ve never seen a national championship won the day before Thanksgiving. It’s usually won that first Monday night in April.”
He’s right, of course. And he has a veteran team that understands there’s a lot of season left—senior Kennedy Meeks phrased it in the perfect Williams-approved manner in that same postgame press conference when he said, “We definitely have to have a couple of great practices leading up to Indiana.”
Players agree the 7-0 Tar Heels can still improve, and they’ll have to get better in advance of Wednesday night’s date in Bloomington against an angry Hoosiers club.
“We’re not perfect,” said Isaiah Hicks. “We have to polish some things, especially on the offensive side. We need to move more and get a little better spacing. Sometimes we get caught standing there. And we always have to keep up our defensive intensity and effort.”
But as Williams said before the game, he’d learn plenty about his team in the islands. So what exactly did the Tar Heels find out?
They play cohesively.
Williams often describes his favorite teams to watch as five players who move together on defense, or an offense that is a threat to score from any position on the court. In Maui, the Tar Heels had both.
Nate Britt credited the UNC big men with defending the screen on the ball perhaps better than at any time during his career. Plenty of attention was paid to Carolina’s potent offense in Maui, but it’s also worth mentioning that their defensive efficiency is currently ranked ninth in the country by KenPom. Oklahoma State put up 98 points against UConn, 97 against Georgetown, averages 103.2 points per game in their games not against the Tar Heels…and scored “only” 75 in the Maui semifinal meeting.
Carolina’s offensive exploits have been well chronicled. Five players are averaging in double figures, including reserve Tony Bradley in just 17.6 minutes per game. The Tar Heels are shooting 39.2 percent from the three-point line (Kenny Williams is quietly shooting 44.4 percent from the arc), which has opened some driving lanes for Justin Jackson’s demoralizing slices to the rim.
They rebound—occasionally ferociously.
With the loss of Brice Johnson, rebounding—especially on the defensive glass—looked to be a problem very early in the season. Instead, it has turned into a strength, including a virtual shutout of Wisconsin’s second chance opportunities against a team that thrives on that aspect of the game.
Kennedy Meeks has been terrific on the boards, posting the second-best offensive rebounding percentage (22.6%) in the country. The player in first place? None other than Bradley (24.4%).
They are tough.
This comes partially from their coach, but on the floor, it’s dictated by Joel Berry II, who has been terrific in all aspects of the game.
“The toughness and how we compete on the defensive end is the biggest thing I learned in Maui,” Berry said. “Coach always stresses we need to guard the ball on the perimeter. We did a good job of that in Maui, but the big men also did a great job stepping out on the perimeter and keeping the man in front of them.”
“The main thing I learned in Maui is about our toughness and will to compete,” said Hicks. “A few years ago, the question about us was whether we were soft, and people thought the other team wanted it more. Now we know how to play. We know what it takes to get to that last Monday night. It’s not going to be perfect every night, but we know we have to grind.”