Aloha means goodbye: Final thoughts from UNC's run through Maui Invitational

One of the perks of covering the Maui Invitational: the Hawaii sunrises, which will be missed.
One of the perks of covering the Maui Invitational: the Hawaii sunrises, which will be missed. acarter@newsobserver.com

Some final stories, notes, quotes, thoughts and observations after three and a half days on Maui, where North Carolina won three games by an average of 30 points and won the Maui Invitational for the third time under coach Roy Williams (and fourth time in school history):

1. Is UNC better than it was last year?

Nobody thought this would be a realistic question this early but here we are, with the Tar Heels off to their best start since the 2008-09 season. UNC isn't just winning, it's winning with artful ease – and it's doing so at a high enough level that it's impressive regardless of the competition, which, as Roy Williams argued when I asked him about this, hasn't exactly been “murderer's row.”

First, here's what Williams said on Wednesday night when I asked him how to explain this team's early success despite losing Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige:

“Let's not jump on the dadgum victory celebration yet. We played a team last night (Oklahoma State) and a team tonight (Wisconsin) that I think would be ranked in the top 50 to 75. We haven't played murderer's row yet. Talk to me after we play Indiana at Indiana and Kentucky and Monmouth and all those people. But I'm not going to go out and make my reservations for the Final Four. I don't even know where the hell it is.”

Phoenix, I told him. It's in Phoenix. Williams went on:

“I thought everything was in Phoenix. Isn't that where the Super Bowl is, too? I'm serious. I'm not jumping on any boat trying to figure out how great we are. We can stink it up with the rest of them. We've just got to get better every day. I've never seen a national championship won the day before Thanksgiving. It's usually won that first Monday night in April.”

A few thoughts on that:

-Classic Roy.

-He's right about how early it is.

-He's probably wise to dismiss the question.

It does no good for Williams to espouse praise and inflate egos this early in the season. Keep in mind how Williams stayed on Johnson last year even after it was clear that Johnson had become a better, more consistent player. Even after that game at Florida State a season ago, Williams talked some about how Johnson needed to play that way all of the time, and not just some of the time.

Thing about this team, though, is that it mostly has played very well all of the time. The 83-68 victory at Hawaii is the exception but some context is necessary: That game was played not long after UNC made the long trip west, and was played at 1 a.m. eastern time. If there are ever ideal circumstances to give a dud of a performance, it's probably those, given the travel and the time.

Not that it was an excuse for Williams. He admonished his team afterward.

And then the Tar Heels responded with three complete games to win in Maui. Murderer's row? It wasn't, as Williams said. But Wisconsin could be a Sweet 16 team that will be in the running in the Big Ten, and Oklahoma State, with its backcourt, should be better equipped to compete in the Big 12 than it was a season ago. UNC took both teams apart.

One of the big differences between this UNC team and others in the recent past: The others by this point in the season had played so sloppily or poorly that it cost them a victory. Northern Iowa last season. Butler in the Bahamas the season before that (and Iowa not long after). The season before that, Belmont and UAB. UNC lost all of those games.

Seven games into this season, the early dud came at Hawaii in a game UNC won by 15. The Wisconsin game looked like one that could give the Tar Heels some real problems, given the contrasting styles there, and UNC did have some problems during the first half. It still led by nine at halftime and then blew the game open not long into the second half.

And keep in mind the Tar Heels are doing all of this without Theo Pinson, who was expected to start. Luke Maye, another forward who likely would be contributing about eight to 10 minutes per game, at least, also didn’t play in Hawaii.

The point is this: In recent years the question around this time of year has been: How does this team figure it out and put the pieces together (or, do they have the pieces)? The question now is: How has this team been able to put the pieces together so quickly?

Just about every question UNC had entering the season has so far been answered in the affirmative: Will the Tar Heels fill the void in production left by Paige and Johnson? Yes. Will Joel Berry emerge and take another step in his development after his breakout season last year? Yes. Will Kennedy Meeks consistently contribute at a high level? Yes. Is Justin Jackson ready to play more of a leading role? Yes.

And so on. But again: We’re only seven games in.

Still the results so far lead to an obvious question?: Is this team better than it was last year? Williams is right that it's too early to know how good these guys are, though the Tar Heels are clearly farther along than just about anybody could have expected. There's a long way to go, too. This team won't be as successful as the last unless it reaches the final Monday night of the season.

2. What did UNC learn?

For teams that play in these tournaments – the Maui Invitational, the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas – one of the most important benefits is the opportunity to learn about themselves. The games themselves offer that opportunity, as just about every game does, but then there's everything else: all the time spent together off the court, the meals, the meetings, the downtime in the hotel.

The Tar Heels had often been together since the start of practice in early October. But not like this, during the past week in Hawaii. And so, undoubtedly, the players learned things about each other that they didn't know before. Tony Bradley, the freshman forward, learned he could do OK on a 10-hour flight, which he expressed apprehension about before leaving.

And the team, collectively, learned some things about itself. Before the Tar Heels rushed out of the Lahaina Civic Center to celebrate their championship, I managed to ask a few people, Roy Williams included, about what they'd learned about this team. Isaiah Hicks, the senior forward, had the best answer:

“I would say we're not that team that was called soft, and stuff, in the past. We're ready to compete now. We know it's not going to be easy – some games you've got to grind out, like today in the first half, a lot of us weren't making shots, easy shots that we usually make all the time. But I guess playing three games straight really took an effect on us. But we pushed through, showed toughness with that.

“I guess that's the big thing with us.”

That is a big thing, indeed: The Tar Heels learned they have some toughness.

In years past Williams has had to continuously emphasize the importance of toughness and other intangibles. This year, through seven games, at least, the Tar Heels seem to get it. As displeased as Williams was after the game at Hawaii, we haven't heard him constantly bemoan his team's lack of toughness and effort, as he's done before. What did Williams learn about his team after winning the Maui Invitational?

“How you play three days in a row without a lot of preparation specific to that team,” he said.

He went on:

“Believe in your defensive principles, not having to know what they're running on offense. But we work on our defensive principles all the time. So I think they have more belief in that.

“I think they now have more belief how important the backboards are. We talked about its emphasis all year last year, all season. Now it's the name on the front of the jersey, and I think the kids have bought into that willing to make sacrifices. When Justin Jackson made that, I guess, the only 3 he made (Wednesday), everybody on our team was as happy as they could possibly be for him and our team.

“But I think playing in these kind of games helps us. Playing Oklahoma State last night which was full court and, as I said, hand-to-hand combat, fast tempo, a lot of guys going in and out. It was much different tonight than a grind-it-out game. So for two nights in a row we've shown we can play two different styles.

“But, again, I'm going to enjoy this one until we get back in the main land. And then we understand what our next game is. … I know Indiana is our next game. The last time we went and played at Bloomington they beat us by 4,000 points. So I remember that.”

3. On Maui, a reunion.

UNC's opening game in the Maui Invitational, last Monday against Chaminade, was especially meaningful for Stilman White, the senior guard. It was the first game his middle brother, Anders, had attended in two years.

Like Stilman before him, Anders went on a Mormon mission that he recently completed. When he did, he came back home to Michigan – the White family moved during the past couple of years from Wilmington to Grand Rapids, Mich. – and traveled with family to see Stilman and UNC in Hawaii.

And then, as luck would have it, Stilman played meaningful first-half minutes against Chaminade. He came off the bench and finished with a career-high five points, and his arrival in the game in the first half seemed to provide something of a spark.

Stilman, Anders and Solomon, the youngest White brother, are all close.

“I'm tighter with my two brothers than probably anyone on this Earth, including my best friends I grew up in high school with,” Stilman said. “We love basketball, we love sports. We love talking trash to each other.”

And so there was a lot of that during their time together on Maui. Anders and the rest of the White family sat not far from the UNC bench inside the Lahaina Civic Center. Before last Monday, the last time Anders had been to a UNC game was two years ago, when the Tar Heels played at Kentucky.

Not long after, Anders left for his Mormon mission. Stilman completed his in 2014, about two years after he started for the Tar Heels in an NCAA tournament regional championship game in Kansas. That seems forever ago.

Now Stilman is the Tar Heels' elder statesman, a senior who has been around the program, in one way or another, since 2011. Stilman said it “was pretty hard” not to see Anders while Anders was gone most of the past two years.

They were able to trade emails about once a week. On Christmas and Mother's Day, they talked on Skype. One of the first things Stilman did when he saw Anders in Hawaii was push him into a pool. Good to see you, brother.

“That was my first interaction with him in two years, because he was just standing by the pool,” Stilman said. “He's still my little brother at the end of the day, so I've still got to remind him of that I'm the big brother.”

4. Lasting thoughts, memories …

In no particular order, some things that I'll remember about the Maui experience, both related to the tournament and not:

--The gym. The intimacy of the Lahaina Civic Center stood out in 2012, when I made this trip for the first time, and it did again last week – but perhaps more so, and maybe because media members in the past four years have continually been moved farther and farther away from the action at many arenas. Covering a game in Maui is sort of like covering a game at Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium. Both places, because of their space limitations, offer a unique perspective that reporters (at least one working for most websites or newspapers) usually aren't able to experience these days. It’s a throwback to a different time, and you have to appreciate the chance to observe moments that are difficult to observe close-up these days: a conversation between a player and official; how players communicate with one another; the direction from coach to player.

--Three mornings of sunrises … sort of.

It takes a good while to fly out to Hawaii but one of the advantages of the long trip (at least while you're there; less so coming back) is the time difference. It's not difficult in the least to wake up at 3:30 in the morning to make it up to summit of Mt. Haleakala, a large volcano that offers incredible views of the sunrise. Or so they say. When I made the drive last Monday morning, it was rainy and foggy at the top. No sunrise to be seen. The drive back down was beautiful, indeed – as were the two sunrises the next two mornings, both of which I witnessed on the beach. “I'm corny,” Roy Williams said at one point during one of his press conferences in Maui, and so am I: I like waking up for this stuff.

--Seeing a wish come true.

Will Fickling, a 13-year-old UNC fan from Goldsboro, lived a dream last week: He and his family traveled to Maui to watch the Tar Heels. Fickling was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2015, and he recently completed his 28th chemotherapy treatment at Duke. Make-A-Wish Eastern North Carolina – a branch of the Make-A-Wish Foundation – granted his wish to send he and his family to Hawaii for the Maui Invitational. Before the tournament began, the Ficklings attended a UNC shoot-around at a local high school. Roy Williams and his assistant coaches spent with the family; Will got to meet some of the players. Kennedy Meeks lifted Will's younger brother up for a dunk. It was a cool scene, a worthy reminder of the power of sports, and what they mean to so many.

-Watching the sun set over Honolua Bay.

There might be better places on Maui to watch the sun fade into the Pacific Ocean. The best one I know about, though, is from the cliffs overlooking Honolua Bay, which happens to be a renowned surfing spot. Down below, dozens of surfers at any hour of any day are waiting for waves, which come frequently and eventually crash into a rocky shoreline. All around are rocks and tall, jagged cliffs, some with little walkways winding their way down to the water. I sat perched off one of those trails on Sunday, with my camera, when a surfer came walking down, casually. He carried his board. “Don't fall,” he told me, and I said I was fine where I was but had hoped to make it all the way down. “Walk down,” he said. It seemed a bit beyond my skills, though, and, besides, then I'd have to get back up. “Walk up,” he told me, not breaking stride. He was right. I made it down a little farther for some more pictures, and watched the sun disappear behind the bay. And then, well ... I walked up. Sound advice.

After UNC won on Wednesday night, Roy Williams said that he never leaves Maui until they let him sign the contract to come back four years later. It's not difficult to see why. Maybe The NandO will let me do the same ...

Andrew Carter: 919-829-8944, @_andrewcarter