By Adam Lucas
MEMPHIS—If only Theo Pinson had been available to give Kamar Baldwin some advice.
The Butler freshman tried to be physical with Joel Berry II in Friday night’s NCAA Tournament regional semifinal. There wasn’t anything dirty, nothing that crossed the line, but the freshman clearly wanted to establish a presence with Berry.
Asked about it after the game, Pinson just shook his head.
“I would advise all teams not to do that,” Pinson said. “I know Joel. When he gets mad, it gets ugly. The dude is already aggressive when the game starts. When you start talking to him and get him riled up, he gets even more aggressive.”
The Bulldogs had already made hard contact with Berry after the whistle on a play in the first half. When it happened again early in the second half, the Tar Heel point guard was clearly miffed.
The way he uses his emotions has been a recent topic of conversation between Roy Williams and Berry. Everyone loves Berry’s competitiveness. It’s the type of intensity that is a necessity at this time of year. Raymond Felton had it. Tyler Hansbrough had it.
And that’s where it has to stop. When Berry redlines his intensity, sometimes—the loss at Miami, the ACC Tournament game against Duke—it renders him ineffective.
“Sometimes I have to tell myself to be patient,” Berry says. “I know I can force things when I’m trying to make a play for my team, and sometimes forcing a play hurts your team. I tell myself to be patient and know that my time is coming.”
That time didn’t take long. On the very next UNC possession, Berry took the ball hard to the rim, absorbed the contact, and scored. A couple minutes later, he unleashed a gorgeous stutter step move to get another basket. Berry had not made a two-point field goal in the NCAA Tournament, eliminating his key dribble penetration contributions. He made five of six two-point shots against Butler, pairing them with three three-pointers for a game-high 26 points.
Berry never seemed especially concerned about his so-called shooting slump over the past couple of weeks. He entered Friday 3-for-21 in the NCAA Tournament, but for most of this week, he followed his normal shooting and practice routine, altering it only when he stayed after Friday’s shootaround to take a few extra jumpers.
His shot was already feeling good coming off his fingers. Add in Baldwin’s feistiness, and it was the perfect combination for a breakout offensive performance.
“I’ve seen it happen with my own eyes,” Pinson said. “We play one on one, and I’ll talk junk. I’ve been in those altercations when I get torched because I’m talking, and I have to back off because I need to win. The dude is a competitor.”
Then came perhaps the compliment Berry would appreciate more than any other. “The dude is a dog,” Pinson said of Berry. “He’s going to try to do anything he can to win.”
Friday, the dog barked. Berry did his best to ignore Baldwin. But he noticed. Oh, he noticed.
“He got up in my personal space,” Berry said. “I bumped him off a little bit. I hate when someone comes around and tries to jump around.”
And then came perhaps the most telling statement of Berry’s Carolina career. He’s battling a tweaked ankle, he’s been in a shooting slump, his team is perhaps the third-most discussed out of four here in Memphis. You might have expected him to be frustrated with Baldwin’s insolence.
No. He loved it.
“That’s when it gets fun, when two guys are going at it,” Berry said. “Sometimes you need that just to make the game interesting.”
You might not need it to make it interesting. But Joel Berry does, and Friday he managed his emotions perfectly. His teammates saw the conflict brewing and knew what was about to happen.
Isaiah Hicks just laughed. “That’s OK with us,” he said of Butler baiting Berry. “You’re just fueling a hungry animal.”