In the wake of a truly ugly and heartbreaking loss for the Tar Heels against Texas A&M in the Round of 32, it is difficult to take a step back and try to sum up this year. I know it is general practice to attempt to reserve bias and fandom in sports writing, but I also know my connection to the University of North Carolina and more specifically the basketball team negates my ability to be entirely objective. Just getting a win and moving forward (outside of the postseason) can often leave something to be desired, partly because I have so much faith in the coaching staff to prepare the players for success. Anytime the Tar Heels leave something on the table in a game or did something particularly poorly that they’d normally do well or that the coaches preach is critically important, even a win sometimes doesn’t absolve those shortcomings. But, I also don’t find it difficult to simultaneously recognize great accomplishments.
In light of last year’s national championship team losing seniors and key pieces in Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks, Nate Britt, Justin Jackson, and Tony Bradley, I don’t think anyone knew what to expect from this year’s team. Joel Berry and Theo Pinson were really the only guys who played significant minutes night in, night out last year, while Luke Maye and Kenny Williams played supporting roles. Throw in some freshman with no experience of Coach Williams’s expectations, a transfer in Cam Johnson, and an untested Seventh Woods, the predictions for the way this season could go were all over the place.
The Tar Heels finish at 26-11 overall, and 11-7 in ACC play. The season was highlighted by two wins over Duke, one in the Smith Center and one in the semifinal of the ACC Tournament. Going into that game against Duke in Chapel Hill, the Tar Heels had dropped 3 out of 4, with only a blowout win against a really bad Pitt team as any salvation. One of the characteristics of this year’s team was their ability to bounce back, to “stay the course” as the coaches say, and show that they had no intention of wavering when things got tough. This team was exactly that… tough. I remember thinking early in the season how much this team hustled after loose balls, dove on the floor, took charges and battled for rebounds. When the Tar heels were at their best, they looked nearly unstoppable, and the toughness they showed was a major part of what made them good.
I think there’s a lot to be proud of this season, so here’s an individualized assessment of some of the great things these guys did on the court. In no particular order…
- Luke Maye: the junior forward burst onto the scene in the NCAA Tournament last season, hitting the game winning shot in the Elite Eight over Kentucky to continue the “Redemption Tour” that ended in a national championship. I said it a lot this year to friends, family and Twitter, but Luke Maye is no different player than he was as a freshman when I played alongside him as a walk-on my senior year. The kid could flat-out play, and his ability to shoot the ball and tear down rebounds against bigger guys was evident every day in practice. On Blue Squad (the walk-ons and reserves who play the scout team in practice), our strategy often became “Luke go make a play.” The difference this year is obviously his playing time and getting that opportunity to make something happen every single night. It can’t be understated either how going up against the stout competition of Brice Johnson, Joel James, Kennedy Meeks or Isaiah Hicks prepared him for the role of guarding bigger players and finding ways to grab the rebounds that are so important to Coach Williams. The junior averaged 16.9 points, 10.1 rebounds, shooting 48.6% from the floor. He was named First Team All-ACC, a Wooden Award finalist, and won the ACC’s Skip Prosser Award.
- Kenny Williams: the junior guard played over 23 minutes a game last season, but his offensive production was limited to 6.1 points and didn’t shoot the ball particularly well from 3. Williams increased his scoring average to over 11 points, increasing his 3 pt % to nearly 41%. Aside from his contributions on the offensive end, his individual play on defense was a particular asset for the team. I can’t even count how many times he had a crucial steal, locked down his man, or perhaps most of all took a momentum-shifting charge that had me screaming at the television in excitement.
- Joel Berry: I think we all knew what type of season Joel Berry was primed for. Coming off a brilliant junior campaign where he won Final Four MOP, the sky was the limit (or the ceiling the roof). Together with Pinson, they were the de facto emotional leaders of this team. With some inconsistency from the Tar Heels at times during the season, if there was anything you could count on, it was Joel Berry was going to give maximum effort and be willing to tear the opponents’ head off at a moment’s notice if that was what it took to win.
- Theo Pinson: especially over the last 15 games, Pinson littered the stat sheet, going on triple-double watch a handful of times. He startled many casual and die-hard fans when he found his shooting stroke and assisted in just about every way imaginable. In the two wins over Duke, Pinson played some of the best defense of his career against the force that is Marvin Bagley, and truly was the glue that held this team together in some spectacular stretches this year. More on Pinson and Berry later.
- Cam Johnson: the junior transfer from Pitt certainly lived up to the expectations Carolina fans had after seeing him rain in six 3s in a game last year in the Smith Center. From his early season interviews, it was clear he is an intelligent and an intelligent player, and his impact stretched well beyond the just the 3 point line. He averaged 12.4 ppg and a respectable 4.7 rebounds, something he admitted to not really doing before he came to Carolina. His development next year after spending a season under Roy Williams’s tutelage will be exciting.
- The freshmen: I am really, really excited about the future of these young guys. Brooks and Manley, especially toward the end of the season, showed that they are capable big men in the Roy Williams system that puts a great emphasis on their performance. Down the stretch we saw those guys come into their own and play some great games, grabbing down rebounds and playing solid defense. Brooks all year proved he was a good position defender, doing well on ball screens and other help situations. What really excites me though is the prospect of the improvement they can have over just this one some. Brooks, Manley, Huffman and Platek I think are all smart, dedicated players who are capable of tremendous strides in one single offseason. For the big guys in particular, the opportunity they’ll have to go up against professional talent in summer pickup will allow them to really work on their defense and offensive moves. This year, I think it was difficult for them to make huge strides in-season because they were going up against each other every day, and the prospect of learning a new move that they can use effectively in-game is very difficult. But having this offseason to work on their individual scoring moves and go up against the former Carolina players who are better than them could make for some massive improvements from this season to next.
- Brandon Robinson and Seventh Woods: obviously Seventh Woods was injured for a good portion of the season, and after he came back, he didn’t ever look totally comfortable and in a groove. Brandon put together some solid reserve minutes on the season, and when he did get an open look from the perimeter he shot it really well for a good portion of the season before tailing off towards the end. Again these guys have some great potential, and the incoming freshman I think will give them some stiff competition when vying for the now-vacant starting roles.
- Lastly, a quick shout-out to the eponymous walk-ons Aaron Rohlman, Kane Ma, Walker Miller and Shea Rush, but particularly to seniors Aaron Rohlman and Kane Ma. I got to play a year of JV at Carolina with Kane and I was really happy for him when he got moved up. He went through something similar to what I did, being moved up in the middle of the season, and hearing those words from Coach Williams that you’ve made it is an unforgettable experience. Likewise for Aaron when he made the team last year, and this year it was great to see him score a few buckets and get the shout-out multiple times from Jay Bilas on national TV for being so jacked.
So now for a bit more on Pinson and Berry: these guys have had an immeasurable contribution to this year’s team and the program as a hole. They came to Carolina when people were openly talking about the death penalty, and took a lot of personal criticism for it. Their willingness to face that head-on says a lot about their character. In a time when the culture of college basketball is changing so rapidly, Berry and Pinson remained a constant, flashing across Instagram and Twitter with their infectious smiles and attitudes, all the while proving their worth on the court every day. These two guys are a joy to be around on the court and in the locker room, and they brought a lot of joy to every Carolina fan as well. With an ACC Tournament and Regular Season title, two Final Fours, and a National Championship, Berry’s jersey will hang in the rafters and the two together cement their place in Carolina Basketball history as some of the most beloved to ever wear argyle.
To everyone who read this year, thank you for the comments, Tweets, and emails. I’ve done this just for fun to try and stay connected in a little more intimate way than just watching every game. I took notes on my phone in crowded restaurants, brought a pocket notebook to brunch with friends in different cities, took some good old-fashioned notes while screaming at my computer or television, even traveled from my current residence in Kansas City to see a few games in Chapel Hill. I look forward to writing again next season.