North Carolina returned to Chapel Hill on Monday after 11 days out west. The Tar Heels spent the first of those days in northern California, for the Tar Heels’ game against Stanford, and then the remainder in Portland, where UNC won its first two games in the PK80 before its 63-45 defeat against Michigan State in one of the tournament’s two championship games.
That (ugly) defeat aside, this was a memorable trip for the Tar Heels, and one that’s likely to pay dividends throughout the next several months, both on the court and off. As always, there are many important things that never really made it into a story or a tweet during the past week, so consider this some bonus material: five things to remember from UNC’s West Coast trip:
1. The Tar Heels learned that this is an especially “goofy” group.
At least that’s according to Kenny Williams, the junior guard. These long November trips – whether they be to Maui or to the Bahamas or back to Maui (every four years) or to Portland – are always about more than just basketball. They’re about team-building, bonding, spending a lot of time together.
Never miss a local story.
Consider that when UNC left for this trip, Thanksgiving was nearly a week away. By the time the Tar Heels were making their way back, that holiday was already in the past and now the Christmas decorations were going up everywhere.
So what did UNC learn about itself, outside of basketball? Well, for one thing, Williams said, the Tar Heels learned that “this is a goofy group.”
“You know, we usually have a goofy group, but I think this group is goofy on another level. And we’ve seen that in the meal rooms, on the buses. Wherever we go. So it’s a really goofy group.”
Williams didn’t offer any examples of any particular goofiness but, well, you can imagine that sort of goofy things a bunch of 18- to 22-year-old guys might be into. Here’s how Joel Berry, the senior point guard, evaluated the 11 days he and his teammates spent together:
“Overall, it was a great trip. It was a long one, but guys got a chance to bond together, guys got a chance to talk and probably some of the guys probably talked to people that they would never sit down and talk with. So overall, it was a great trip, and I enjoyed myself.”
2. UNC isn’t immune to the sort of thing that happened against Michigan State.
Now, granted, Michigan State played at a different level on Sunday, and looked every bit like a team that should reach the Final Four. As difficult as the ACC is, UNC won’t have to face too many teams that are at Michigan State’s caliber. But the point remains: UNC isn’t immune to laying an egg.
In recent years past, it was almost immune. In the past two seasons combined, UNC had lost three games by double figures – all of them last season. Yet the Tar Heels hadn’t absorbed a beating that thorough in a good long while. Before Sunday, the most recent time they’d lost by at least 18 points was in December 2012, in an 85-67 defeat at Texas.
Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson were freshmen then. Harrison Barnes was less than a year removed from Chapel Hill. What a time it was. Sure, there had been some clunkers since, but the fact that almost five years had passed since UNC lost as badly as it did on Sunday says a lot about how good the Tar Heels have been through most of that stretch. And how bad they were against the Spartans.
“Well,” Roy Williams said, “it was about as bad an exhibition as I’ve ever seen.”
What the defeat taught us, more than anything, is that if teams can find a way to frustrate Joel Berry, Luke Maye and Kenny Williams on the perimeter, it’s going to make it extremely difficult for UNC to win. And when a team does that and has a natural physical advantage on the inside, then, well, that’s bad news for the Tar Heels.
The good: They’re not likely to shoot as poorly again, given they’d never shot as poorly (24.8 percent) as they did against Michigan State. But with UNC’s youth on the interior, and with some players (Maye, Kenny Williams) still adjusting to larger roles, this is a team that’s still coming together.
3. Joel Berry won’t let defeats get him down.
There might not be a more competitive player in the country than Joel Berry, the senior point guard. This is a man, remember, who helped lead UNC to the national championship last spring on two bad ankles. And whose defeat, in a video game, led him to punch a door, which led to him breaking a bone in his hand. The injury forced him to miss UNC’s season-opening victory against Northern Iowa.
So, given that, Berry had to be pretty despondent after the defeat on Sunday, right? Well, not really. As competitive as Berry is, he said afterward that he’s not going to let the losses get him down this season. At least, that’s one of his goals. In his words:
“It’s my senior year, so I’m not going to let anything bother me. I understand we lost the game and understand we got (badly beat), but I’m going to enjoy my senior year, because I’ll never get this year back. And I’m going to continue to play and I will tell you now, you all will see me every time we lose, win – I will have a smile on myself, and I will continue to lead this team, but I’m not going to let just one game and one bad game get me down.”
4. Luke Maye’s fast start was no fluke.
As the corollary to Berry’s relatively upbeat attitude following the defeat against Michigan State, there was Maye. He sat in the locker room with a hood pulled over his head, which slumped down. He spoke softly. He called the defeat a “wake-up call,” both for the team and for him, individually. Maye seemed to take the defeat harder than any of his teammates, at least in the direct moments after.
Though he didn’t experience the ending he wanted, the trip was still a success for Maye, who built on his strong start to his junior season. His best performance of the season, so far, came in UNC’s 87-68 victory against Arkansas. Maye finished with 28 points and 16 rebounds and made four of his five attempts from behind the 3-point line.
It was a struggle for him against Michigan State: eight points (his first game in single digits this season) and six rebounds, and 3-for-13 from the field, against a Spartans defense that provided little room to operate. There will be those games for Maye this season – and for anyone. Games when the shots aren’t falling, when the defense has his number.
Overall, though, he still presents defenses with a challenge that few UNC players have in recent years. He’s not a traditional post player. He’s not a traditional guard or small forward. At his best, Maye can be what he was against Arkansas – a guy capable of scoring from just about anywhere, and one who also gets in the paint and leads the team in rebounding.
After the Arkansas game, Roy Williams told a short story:
“Last year in the middle of the season,” he said, “I told my staff, I said guys, you don’t understand – I like Luke better than all of y’all put together.’ And none of them disliked him. But I just think that he’s a big-time player.”
Later Williams alluded to what makes Maye such a problem for other teams: “What has given us trouble, the last three or four years?” Williams asked. “Is guarding an under-sized four man.”
Now the Tar Heels have one of those, and it’s something of a new toy for Williams.
5. The Tar Heels visited Nike and came away with some shoes.
UNC’s relationship with Nike began in 1993, and it was among the first deals between an apparel company and an entire athletic department. In many ways, then, it helped to change the landscape of college athletics and brought about an era in which these deals soon became common.
As part of its visit to Portland for the PK80, the UNC basketball team made the short visit to Nike headquarters in Beaverton. A slick presentation awaited, one that included LeBron James on a video screen, sending his condolences about not being there to greet the Tar Heels in person.
“They put LeBron on the screen, and he was like, ‘Sorry I can’t be there,’ ” Kenny Williams said. “’But I’ve got a gift for you.’ And then they lit up our NC logo … and they had a bunch of shoes behind it.”
The shoes were the latest “LeBrons,” as those much more familiar with these things might describe them. But they weren’t just the basic LeBrons. These were custom-made for each UNC player.
“There was a whole wall of shoes right there for us to grab with our numbers on them,” UNC guard Shea Rush said. “It was really sweet.”
Rush, a former invited walk-on who received a scholarship before the start of this season, is a fashion and design aficionado, and so he especially appreciated the visit to Nike.
“Just getting to go to Nike was an awesome experience,” Rush said, “because I do really enjoy design and fashion – just kind of pick at people’s brains. That was a really neat experience.”
Being an avid golf fan, though, the best part, according to Rush, is when the tour shifted to Nike’s golf facility, which is named after Tiger Woods. There, on the grounds, is a replication of 18th tee box at Pebble Beach, which is known as one of Woods’ favorite holes.
All told, UNC spent about 90 minutes touring Nike. Amid four games and 11 days on the road, it was only a small part of a long, memorable trip.