By Turner Walston
Joel Berry II could learn a thing or two from Roger Federer. Considered the greatest male tennis player of all time, At 35, Federer has learned how to conserve energy, to play the long game. There are times when opponents hit good shots to Federer's side of the court, but he lets them go. Federer will concede a point if he believes that he would waste energy on a less-than-optimal return. If he's not positioned well to continue and eventually win a point, Federer will let it go. He will often nod at his opponent and prepare for the next point.
It's tempting to want to get to every ball, to win every point, sweep every set. But Federer knows that to win three of five sets, and especially to do it over the course of a two-week tournament, he has to play efficiently. If dropping a point, a game, a set here or there means he can steel himself to win a match or a tournament, then so be it.
Now, what does that have to do with Joel Berry? The engine that makes the Tar Heels go, Berry got himself in early foul trouble in Friday's ACC Tournament semifinal loss to Duke. His first infraction came just 45 seconds into the contest. A second, with 4:26 to go in the first half, caused him to miss the rest of the period. Berry would then commit two fouls in the first five
minutes of the second half –both on reach calls– and return to the bench.
"When he got his third one, I called him over," Roy Williams said. "I said, 'Now, you've got to be smart. I said, 'We'd like to have you in the game.'" Williams said he instructs his players in foul trouble that their next foul should only come on a block call when trying to draw a charge or on a failed box-out. But Berry's fourth came when he reached in on a driving Frank Jackson.
Immediately after he exited, the Tar Heels scored five quick points to go up by 13 points. But a 20-4 Duke run with Berry sidelined changed the tide of the game and led to a disappointing Tar Heel result. In ten minutes of Berry's missed game time, there was a 20-point swing toward the Duke side of the scoreboard.
Carolina needs Joel Berry in the game, not on the bench. The 24 minutes he played on Friday were the fewest since January 8, in the 51-point win over NC State. So as the Tar Heels prep for the win-or-go-home NCAA Tournament, they need Berry to play smart. The Tar Heels can afford to give up two points, letting a play go, if it keeps Berry out of foul trouble. His value in scoring and distributing far outweighs a foul and making an opponent shoot two free throws rather than yielding a field goal.
"There are plays that I can be more aggressive on, and there are plays that I just need to let go, and we can make up for it," Berry said.
Defending in basketball is risk/reward. One can get a steal or a block, one can draw a charge, or one can be called for a foul. Sometimes the best play is to let the play go and live to score on the next possession.
"Let's say that the referee hadn't called the foul and we'd have gotten that ball," Williams said of Berry's reaching foul. "Let's say we scored a three. That would have been really good, but would that three have been worth you sitting out for eight or nine minutes, ten minutes? And he said no, and I said that's what I need you to think about."
It's a bit counterintuitive for a college basketball player to not be aggressive. And the Tar Heels need Joel Berry to be aggressive –his ability to push the offense, shoot from the perimeter and slice through the defense open up so many things offensively. They need an aggressive Joel Berry, but they need a measured aggression.
"Me and Coach talked about it," Berry said Tuesday. "I've got to realize in the flow of the game, what plays to be more aggressive on and what plays to just sit back and let happen because we can make up for it." The Tar Heels can make up for it, but they can best do that if Berry is in the game.
Roger Federer is the most decorated male tennis player in history, not only because he is maddeningly consistent, but also because he knows when to be aggressive, when to concede and move on and how to be at his best when it counts, how to be in the game for the entire match. And for the Tar Heels to make the kind of run they'd like to make this month, Joel Berry will have to do the same.