CHAPEL HILL — Maybe it’s because Joel James is from West Palm Beach, Fla., which is close to the ocean, or maybe he just doesn’t think much of Hawaii. Whatever the case, James, the North Carolina freshman forward, didn’t seem too excited last week for his first trip to Hawaii.
“I don’t know,” James said last week when asked what he was most looking forward to experiencing during the Tar Heels’ trip to the Maui Invitational. “I just want to play basketball. I don’t swim, I don’t go out. So it will just be basketball and the hotel room for me.”
It’s an attitude UNC coach Roy Williams likely appreciates, and one that some of James’ teammates echoed before their trip to Maui. The Heels’ past two trips to the Maui Invitational, in 2004 and ’08, both ended in championships.
Those, though, were different North Carolina teams. Both were led by an experienced nucleus of players who had played together for a while. Both teams entered the season with national championship expectations. Both teams followed their titles in Maui with national championships in April.
This version of the Tar Heels, meanwhile, is far more a work in progress than the last two UNC teams that traveled to Hawaii. North Carolina has shown promise in this early part of the season, most recently during a 78-63 victory on Friday night at Long Beach State in the first game of UNC’s long road trip.
Before the game at Long Beach, the Heels hadn’t shot well from the perimeter. Before the season and after his team’s first two victories, Williams insisted he had capable shooters. They hadn’t shown it until UNC made 10 3-pointers against Long Beach.
That UNC can control a game from the perimeter might be the first of many revelations in the coming days. The Heels open play in the Maui Invitational on Monday against Mississippi State (6 p.m.), then play either Marquette or Butler on Tuesday.
Win or lose on Monday and Tuesday, No. 11 UNC, the only ranked team in the Maui field, will play three games in three days. That could be invaluable for a young team reliant on four freshmen, and on returning players in expanded roles.
“It’ll help us come together, kind of get away and really just put the pedal to the metal,” UNC sophomore forward James Michael McAdoo said. “We’re not going to have too many practices, and we’re going to have to do a lot of learning on the fly.”
The Tar Heels will have a chance to learn about themselves on the court. Off the court, they might learn about one another, too.
This is the first extended road trip for James and fellow freshmen Brice Johnson, Marcus Paige and J.P. Tokoto. A season ago, Reggie Bullock, the junior guard, said the Tar Heels’ chemistry benefited from an early-season trip to San Diego, where UNC defeated Michigan State on the flight deck of the USS Carl Vinson.
“We’ve still got (academic) work, but I believe being away from school, there’s more team bonding,” Bullock said. “And I just feel like we’re going to be able to grow as a team while we’re out there. We’ll see exactly how we are as a team.”
During the Tar Heels’ previous two trips to Maui, they knew those things already. Their dominant performance – UNC has won its past six games in the Maui Invitational by an average of 25.6 points – provided an indication of greater things to come.
This time, UNC is surrounded by questions.