By Adam Lucas
LAHAINA—Roy Williams prepared his team to play Oklahoma State with a very specific warning.
“One big point of emphasis was to make sure we didn’t let them come in and hit us in the mouth first,” said Nate Britt. “Their previous games, they hit teams in the mouth. They play an aggressive defense and teams aren’t able to get back into the game. We didn’t want them to get the first punch.”
There are two or three opponents each year Williams describes as the kind that will hit you in the mouth first. Britt remembered Arkansas in the NCAA Tournament two years ago. Last year’s Providence team probably falls into that category. It's the kind of reputation that makes opponents aware they are in for 40 uncomfortable minutes.
After Carolina’s dominating 107-75 thrashing of the Cowboys, can we ask a question? Sure, it’s only November. But could it be possible—just maybe—that instead of getting ready to play an opponent like that, that it’s the Tar Heels who are developing that type of identity?
What would that look like?
Well, it would look a little like multiple Tar Heels throwing themselves onto the floor at various junctures during the game, sometimes grabbing the ball and sometimes not, but always being the first player on the hardwood. It would look like freshman Tony Bradley hurling himself onto the court to ensure the Tar Heels retrieve a loose ball, then passing up a wide open dunk attempt on the other end to instead hand the ball off to teammate Kennedy Meeks for an even more wide open dunk attempt (that stretch was so reminiscent of a Marvin Williams-type attitude, it was a little scary). It would look like the starters establishing the pressure from the very beginning of the game, followed by no dropoff whatsoever when the reserves enter.
In other words, it would look like what happened on Tuesday night. It wasn't one player who seemed intent on destroying Oklahoma State. It was every single person who started the game, followed by every single reserve. The Tar Heels can’t possibly play that way in every single game. But to know that potential is in there means this team is very close to being a very different kind of Carolina team, and that's not a bad thing. It would be blissful to imagine opponents getting ready for the Tar Heels, and having the first line on the scouting report read something along the lines of what Carolina had written about Oklahoma State: this team will punch you in the mouth.
“It’s encouraging to me to see how we play when we focus and play at that energy level,” Williams said.
A half-dozen games into the season, it’s hard not to love the way this team competes, and the way they seem to thrive on dismantling an opponent. They seem a little angry, don’t they?
Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige departed, and maybe you thought they took with them most of the frustration from the way last year ended. The 2009 team was able to carry through their anger about the 2008 Final Four debacle because all the key parts came back to school. The 2017 team doesn’t have that same luxury, but that’s somehow enabled them to add a small dose of feeling underestimated to their fire from last April.
“It starts with that shot,” said Isaiah Hicks of why this year’s club seems so ticked off, referring back to the shot-that-shall-not-be-named from the national title game. “That’s our motivation. Everyone is self-motivated because of that shot. We know what it took to get there last year, and now we don’t have Brice and Marcus. So everyone knows they have to bring a little more.”
That’s a good description of this season so far. Everyone, six games in, has done a little more than what you might have expected. Already in Maui, four different players have scored at least 20 points in a game. Hicks has blended his whirling post moves with occasional drives to the rim. Kennedy Meeks keeps putting up double figures. Justin Jackson looks like a consistently versatile scorer. Kenny Williams is suddenly a rhythm three-point shooter. Britt has been a sparkplug off the bench.
And then there’s Joel Berry II, who set a career high with 24 points against the Cowboys.
“I think everything starts with Joel,” Britt said. “Our guard play feeds off the way he plays with such tenacity. The guards have been aggressive with picking up the other team’s guards fullcourt or at the midcourt line, and then everyone makes sure we get in the passing lanes and deny the easy passes. The attitude we want to play with starts on the defensive end and carries over.”
That attitude has enabled Carolina to already punch a handful of opponents in the mouth. Do that very many more times, with the toughest challenge yet coming Wednesday against Wisconsin, and it starts to turn into the kind of reputation that makes everyone left on the schedule very wary.