UNC’s search for a psychological edge

North Carolina's Justin Jackson, Kennedy Meeks, Brice Johnson, Joel Berry (2) and Marcus Paige (5) huddle before the start of the Tar Heels’ NCAA tournament run.
North Carolina's Justin Jackson, Kennedy Meeks, Brice Johnson, Joel Berry (2) and Marcus Paige (5) huddle before the start of the Tar Heels’ NCAA tournament run.

North Carolina seniors Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson, the best players on the ACC’s best team, preseason No. 1 in the polls and a top seed in the NCAA tournament, detected disturbing disrespect as they launched their postseason journey. To put it politely, this seemed a bit preposterous, but that was their story.

“A lot of people were saying we weren’t going to make it out of that first weekend,” Paige insisted regarding the NCAA Regional at Raleigh.

Perhaps those doubters were the same seers who wrote Michigan State, a first-round loser, into their Final Four brackets. True, UNC did not dominate its early NCAA opponents; dominance only came in spurts for this year’s squad. Yet in what hardly qualified as flirtations with jeopardy, Carolina opened by beating 16-seed Florida Gulf Coast by 16 after a close first half, then dumped Providence by 19 after a similarly contested start.

The Raleigh performances did nothing to dissuade Paige and Johnson they were being disparaged by outsiders.

“We’ve always been the underdogs for half the year,” offered Johnson of the 2016 season. “We’ve had a lot of people say we’re underdogs in a lot of games. We’ve proved them wrong in all those regards. You call us underdogs, and we’ll just keep proving you wrong.”

College athletes tend to parrot themes struck by coaches and squad leaders in the privacy of the locker room. So the declarations by Johnson and Paige struck a listener less as a fair rendering of the situation than as someone else’s successfully executed motivational sleight of hand, a way to combat a frontrunner’s occasional complacency by manufacturing a chip that sat heavily on players’ shoulders.

Recall that the Heels’ season began with publicly shared self-flagellation over misspent second-half leads in 2015, endured by much the same corps of players, including six McDonald’s All-Americans, who returned this year. An inescapable behind-the-scenes chart chronicled the extent of their failures, a reminder of the importance of what players conceded in October was “doing all the little things” that separate victory from defeat.

“It’s pretty big. You can’t miss it,” sophomore Joel Berry II said of the sign he recalled posing the challenge: “Can We Finish?” Now, after more than 90 practices and three dozen games, a group rich in experience, size, talent and flexibility has furnished an answer, taking them to the threshold of the Final Four.

Rough path

Carolina spent all but one December week in the top 10 of the polls. UNC was 2-1 on the season against higher-ranked teams, dispatching Maryland at home in the ACC/Big 10 Challenge and splitting with Virginia. The win against the Cavaliers came in the ACC tournament final, the Tar Heels’ first league championship in eight years.

Williams’ preferred approach to winning is to cram the ball down the other team’s throat; the faster the tempo, the more he likes it. Sure enough, UNC led the ACC in scoring, offensive rebounding, assists and ratio of assists to turnovers. The Heels were second in scoring margin and field goal accuracy.

Still, with all North Carolina had going for it, including the return of 9 of last year’s top 10 scorers, the path to a first place regular-season finish was not smooth.

Paige lost his shooting touch. Sophomore Justin Jackson never quite found his. Big man Kennedy Meeks fizzled as a factor. The defense was periodically on autopilot. Issues of toughness were raised, as occurred in 2015.

There was notable backsliding in a 5-4 February. The late-season stutter was punctuated by a loss at Notre Dame after leading by nine at halftime, a result Johnson called the least palatable of the year; and what Roy Williams described as a “crushing” defeat against Duke at the Smith Center after holding an eight-point lead with 6:49 to go.

Williams kept his team’s focus on development, defense and decision-making. Paige played off the ball, where he is most effective, to make room for Berry, who blossomed into the team’s second-leading scorer and leader in steals, 3-point and free throw accuracy. Williams developed a smaller lineup to augment UNC’s usual crushing size, a move that gave Johnson and Isaiah Hicks more interior operating room and let Theo Pinson flourish.

Tough, protective

The coach publicly shared reservations about his team’s concentration and effort. When asked, he balked at favorably comparing the level of talent on this year’s squad with the 2005 and 2009 North Carolina teams he directed to NCAA championships.

“They were extremely gifted,” Williams said the other day of the earlier squads. “They were focused. Both of those teams were focused on one goal, winning the national championship. This team right now is focused on being the best team they can possibly be, and we had some big-time dreams and goals, and we’ve got an opportunity to see what’s going to happen over the next couple weeks.”

Williams also openly bemoaned individual shortcomings on this year’s team, particularly Johnson’s. “Brice has always wanted to be great, he just didn’t realize the work it would take to get there,” he said of goading Johnson to earn first team All-America honors. Meanwhile, the team’s leading scorer, rebounder, field goal shooter and shotblocker grudgingly learned to take the critiques in stride. “It’s all right,” Johnson said of Williams’ ministrations. “I love him sometimes. I still hate him sometimes, too.”

Yet when media members incorporated Williams’ refrains into analysis of his squad, the coach took umbrage at what he claimed were unfair characterizations. Seemingly unaware his earlier words shaped others’ thinking, by the time the NCAA tournament got underway Williams was regularly protesting regarding the ’16 unit, “I think it’s the most criticized, least appreciated really good team I’ve ever had.”

Dean Smith’s edge

Williams denies manipulating the popular narrative. Certainly he seems far less calculated than his mentor, Dean Smith, a man admittedly fascinated with the game’s psychological aspects.

Smith routinely spun strengths as weaknesses. He found something to fear from the weakest opponent, and ample reasons to downplay UNC’s obvious gifts. For instance, having a 7-footer on a team once was considered a big deal. So, until the last years of Smith’s career Carolina avoided listing 7-footers by their actual height. Center Warren Martin was said to stand 6-feet, 11-and-3/4 inches tall.

“Everybody talks about tremendous size,” Smith protested in 1993, when his squad boasted 7-footers Eric Montross, Kevin Salvadori and Matt Wenstrom. “I fail to see tremendous size ... We’re not short, don’t get me wrong. I’m the shortest coach – 5-foot-10.”

Which team had the psychological advantage, and under what circumstances, was an ongoing Smith theme. If he saw an edge to take or to blunt, he was ready. “He always tried to make it like they weren’t the bluebloods, and you were,” Dave Odom, the former head coach at Wake Forest, South Carolina and East Carolina, says of Smith’s spin-doctoring. “Dean kept you on edge because he would either do or say something that got under your skin, if you will.”

Williams and his players don’t deny their advantages. But in buying the notion they’re underdogs, – in what Smith approvingly dubbed the “paranoid position” – the Heels demonstrate that their coach, widely regarded as little more than a compiler of exceptional talent, is actually a masterful motivator.