By Adam Lucas
It’s not very often that Roy Williams will admit that very much surprises him about his basketball team.
As he correctly notes, he devotes his life to North Carolina basketball. If something surprises him, that means he wasn’t prepared, and if he wasn’t prepared, then he doesn’t believe he’s doing a very good job.
When you’re a Hall of Famer, it’s fair to say you’ve done a pretty good job.
And so, when Williams stood in his den on August 21 to address his team at its first official gathering of the season, he knew there would be plenty of questions about the 2016-17 Tar Heels. Gone were senior lynchpins Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson. The preseason ACC poll pegged Carolina second, but ESPN’s early rankings had the Tar Heels running third in the league behind Duke and Virginia.
Williams knew better. “There’s a team in this room that is capable of winning a national championship,” he told the players.
But as the coach looked back on his statement nearly seven months later, with a number one seed in hand for an incredible seventh time in his 14 years as the Tar Heel head coach, he admits his team arrived here a little differently than he expected.
“We’ve been really good offensively at times,” he says. “I mean, really good. And yet we haven’t been as good defensively as I thought we would be. I was scared to death about our rebounding. We’ve emphasized that more than anything, and we’re one of the best rebounding teams in the country. We’re far better rebounding-wise than I thought we would be, because Brice was such a good rebounder for us last year.”
Let’s look at each element of that statement. The Tar Heels have indeed been terrific on offense. They’ll enter the NCAA Tournament as Ken Pomeroy’s fourth-most efficient offensive team. Williams has had six teams that ranked in the top five in that category; all six advanced to at least the regional final, five of the six went to the Final Four, and two won the national title.
Last year’s team did it despite struggles from the three-point line, where they made just 32.7 percent of their attempts. This year’s group is much better, at 36.7 percent, with the most significant increase coming from ACC Player of the Year Justin Jackson.
“Justin and Joel have worked so hard to improve as shooters from the outside,” Williams said. “They’ve taken some of the pressure off Kennedy and Isaiah inside and made some of their shots a little easier. Our big guys have been able to go one on one. The effect of Joel and Justin shooting the ball in the basket has made them even better.”
Just Berry’s mere presence on the court seems to make a significant difference in the offense. The junior guard wasn’t having his best game against Duke in the ACC Tournament—he finished with just two assists and didn’t make a three-pointer—but when he was sent to the bench with foul trouble, the offense instantly stagnated. Berry has the ability to beat the opposing defense downcourt and create a basket before the defense is set; those easy hoops can be difference-makers in NCAA Tournament play, when every possession is valuable.
Teammates and coaches have long valued Berry’s competitiveness, which is somewhat reminiscent of Raymond Felton. He’ll need to channel it into defense instead of outside forces over the next three weeks.
“Joel got so upset with the officials in the Duke game that it took away from his game,” Williams says. “You can get upset with the officials, but you have to stay completely focused. If you’re completely focused, you don’t reach in and get your fourth foul with 15 minutes left in the game. I love his competitiveness and toughness and everything about his game. But we also know that when he gets a little fired up he needs to control it more than he did in the Duke game and in the game at Miami.”
When Berry’s intensity is channeled, it makes Carolina a much better defensive team. His constant pressure was essential to some of the lockdown defensive performances in Maui. Not everyone on the roster has the ability to pressure their man all over the court. But there are other ways to contribute to the relentless tone.
Despite Williams’ concerns about the glass, the Tar Heels are rebounding a staggering 42 percent of their missed shots this year, meaning they grab the rebound almost one out of every two times they miss a shot. The next closest NCAA Tournament team is Baylor at 40 percent (heads up: possible second round opponent Seton Hall ranks 11th in that category among the field).
For a coach who has consistently extolled the importance of the rebounding battle during his tenure in Chapel Hill, it’s an obvious reason why his team enters the postseason as one of the teams in the Final Four discussion.
Just like Williams knew they would be back in August—even if their path was slightly different than he expected.