UNC's Justin Jackson reflects on his faith
And then, 364 days later, North Carolina was back in the national championship game. Two teams remain from the NCAA tournament field of 68: UNC and Gonzaga. They play tonight at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz.
Let's get to it: pregame thoughts …
1. It's rare that a team sets out to do something, and then does that exact thing.
But that's what happened with this North Carolina team. Everyone remembers how last season ended for the Tar Heels, who were on the other side of arguably the greatest finish in NCAA tournament history. Since that point, the goal all along was to return to the final Monday night of the season.
So here we are. UNC is back on this stage, playing on the final Monday night of the season. It is seeking a different ending, and that's been the primary goal all along. Regardless, though, the Tar Heels have given themselves the chance. They're back. They've tried to embrace that they're back.
“It's a dream come true,” Theo Pinson said earlier this week.
2. UNC's experience should count for something, right?
And I'm not just talking about the Tar Heels' Final Four experience (though you'd think that might matter, as well). I'm talking more about the experience of playing together for years. This is a UNC team that has been together for a while. All of its starters have played together for at least three seasons.
To me, that's the major difference between UNC and Gonzaga: UNC's key players have been together for a long while now. Gonzaga's hasn't. Dana O'Neil of ESPN.com wrote a good story about how this Gonzaga team came together (and where its guys are from) and this paragraph, a quote from Gonzaga coach Mark Few, stood out to me:
“And the story with these guys is it truly is -- and I think it's been kind of under-talked about -- is how they came together,'' Few said. "We had eight, nine guys that were new to the program. On Sept. 1, I mean when Jordan showed up, that's when we were finally complete as a team. [Josh] Perkins and [Silas] Melson were the only ones that played the year before significant minutes. But yet from the jump, these guys have jumped into roles. They haven't fought anything.”
So Gonzaga has two players, essentially, who played significant minutes last season. And it didn't really become a team until Sept. 1, according to its head coach. Compare that to UNC, which on Sept. 1 was deep into its team group text message conversation – a group that Justin Jackson titled “redemption.”
How much will the collective experience of playing together matter on Monday night? I don't know. But I think it does, to some extent.
3. It should be fun to watch how these teams compete in the post.
For UNC, there is no more talk about mismatches. No more talk about how its post players will have to guard the perimeter. No more talk of how the Tar Heels might be able to exploit their size against a smaller opponent on the inside. There is now size vs. size, strength vs. strength.
It is one of the main storylines of this game: How UNC and Gonzaga, two post-oriented teams, fare against each other on the inside. NandO columnist Luke DeCock wrote about this, and wrote about it well, right here.
The line that stuck with me the most came from Isaiah Hicks: “We finally don’t have to chase the little guys around.”
4. Speaking of Hicks …
What better a time for him to break out of his funk than on Monday night, on the stage that inspired him to return to school for his senior season? I wrote about some of this in a story that posted earlier this morning.
Hicks is saying all the right things: That's he still confident. That he's unfazed by his recent struggles. That, perhaps most important, he's trying to be at his best, and that he'll continue to try. He came back to those two words over and over again on Sunday: “I'm trying.”
The Tar Heels need Hicks to be productive against Gonzaga, especially given the dynamic of the game – with both teams attempting to pound the other on the inside. This should be the kind of game that's attractive to Hicks. He won't have to chase players on the perimeter on defense.
On offense, Hicks' post moves – his ability to maneuver around defenders and through defensive traffic – has never been much of a problem. Finishing those plays, though, has been problematic during the NCAA tournament. He has scored in single digits in his past four games.
The last time that happened in five consecutive games? Hicks' sophomore season.
5. Roy Williams and Mark Few – national championship rivals and gambling buddies.
During tense, dramatic moments on Monday night – maybe if the score is close late, or if there's some sort of controversial moment that requires the officials to go to the review monitors – the cameras will focus on UNC coach Roy Williams and on Gonzaga coach Mark Few.
The cameras might zoom in on their faces in dramatic ways. Their brows might be furrowed. They might be yelling. Maybe these men, performing on the stage every college basketball coach aspires to reach, might be angered by something. And in those moments, I invite you to think about Tunica.
Imagine them piling into a Ford Fiesta or some other “small vehicle,” as Williams put it on Sunday. Imagine them rolling dice.
6. Joel Berry can rest on Tuesday.
As I sagely predicted recently, Joel Berry's ankles have indeed been the most-discussed body part in college basketball in recent days. (But that's only because Przemek Karnowski's beard is not a body part but, instead, a beard.)
The bad news for Berry: He did trip over a video game-controller when he woke up on Sunday. But the good: There was no stiffness, and he's feeling better, he said.
Berry continues to receive treatment for his ankles. Rest continues to be a priority.
The more important priority, perhaps, is probably his shot. He has made just eight of his 34 3-point attempts in the NCAA tournament (23.5 percent). Berry was asked on Sunday if he had to shoot well, and score often, for UNC to win.
He provided an interesting answer:
“My job as a point guard is to make sure guys are in the right spot and be that vocal leader out there. I don’t always have to score the ball just to have an impact on the game. Ever since the Miami game when I didn’t shoot the ball as well, I’ve been trying to do more on the defensive end to help my team out. If I can get the ball and push it up and get my guys in a situation to score, that’s the best thing because Justin (Jackson) is shooting the ball at a high level, Kennedy (Meeks) is doing a great job and we have guys coming off the bench giving us good minutes.”
Berry has evolved in that way. Earlier in the season, he might have been more focused on scoring. Now he sounds like he's embraced the role of being a facilitator. UNC doesn't necessarily need Berry to score or shoot at a particularly high level. It proved as much in the victory against Oregon. But the Tar Heels do need Berry to be on the floor, running the offense and setting the proper defensive tone.
7. This could well be Justin Jackson's final college game.
And so the hidden subtext of that statement is obvious enough: UNC fans should take time to appreciate Jackson in what's likely to be his final game in a Tar Heels uniform. Jackson has had one of the best individual seasons in school history. Despite that, though, he's still often sort of overlooked.
To recap, though, Jackson earned ACC Player of the Year honors. He earned consensus All-American honors. His 715 points are the second-most (behind Tyler Hansbrough) that any UNC player has scored under Roy Williams. Jackson is now eighth in school history in points in a single-season, and with 20 points on Monday night would move into fifth place.
And so it's been a memorable individual season. It has been a memorable NCAA tournament, too. Jackson is averaging 20.2 points per game in it, and he has been the Tar Heels' best defensive player. Here's what Jackson said about his defense on Sunday:
“I had confidence in my defense all year. The coaches just started putting me on the guys that were coming into the games extremely hot. For me, I go into the game trying to be as focused as possible and knowing what they like to do. Just try to make it as hard as possible on them to get touches. Whenever they do get the ball, I just try to throw little things at them to not let them get comfortable. I think my length helps a lot as well. Being 6-8 against a two or three guy, who are usually not 6-8, helps.”
8. The strongest of praise for Roy Williams from Hubert Davis.
Roy Williams will coach his 100th NCAA tournament game on Monday night. He is seeking his third national championship. If UNC wins, he'd join a small coaching fraternity. Only five coaches in college basketball history have won at least three national championships: John Wooden, Mike Kryzewski, Adolph Rupp, Jim Calhoun and Bob Knight.
I spoke with Hubert Davis, the UNC assistant coach who played for Dean Smith, about Williams' legacy on Sunday. This is how Davis answered: “I don't think he cares about his legacy. I don't think he cares. We don't look at things that way – we just don't. And that goes from coach Smith. He never talked about wins. It was all about preparation and process, and you if you continue individually and as a team to do everything that you can to put yourself in a position to succeed, then the wins will take care of itself.”
That wasn't all Davis said. He said Williams was the best coach he'd ever been around.
Davis: “I've been around a lot of coaches and I've been around a lot of great coaches, and coach Williams is the best. I've been around all of them. I've been around coach Smith, coach Guthridge, Pat Riley, Jeff Van Gundy, Doug Collins, Don Nelson. All of them. Nobody is better, on and off the court, than coach Williams.”
9. Kris Jenkins, wearing UNC colors.
Three-hundred, sixty-four days ago, Kris Jenkins' 3-pointer doomed North Carolina at the buzzer. Villanova won the national championship. The Tar Heels walked slowly back to their locker room. For as long as they play NCAA tournament games, Jenkins' shot will rank among the all-time great moments.
He'll be at University of Phoenix Stadium on Monday night, and he'll be cheering for the Tar Heels. Jenkins and Nate Britt, the Tar Heels' senior guard, are brothers. Not biologically, but that matters not. They have been brothers since their childhood, when Jenkins during his high school years moved in with Britt's family.
And so, as brothers do, Jenkins will be there to support his brother on Monday night. He'll be wearing UNC shirt, nearly a year after he sent into despair hundreds of thousands of people in UNC shirts. Reporters have made a big deal out of this – that Jenkins, the basketball hero of early last April, the one who sent UNC into misery, would arrive here to support the Tar Heels.
Was it odd that Jenkins would be wearing a UNC shirt, Britt was asked on Sunday. No he said.
“I mean, Kris is my brother,” he said.
And so this is what brothers do.
10. A second chance.
For all the talk of redemption, what UNC has really sought this entire season is the opportunity to achieve redemption. It has sought that second chance – the opportunity to be back here, playing again on the final Monday night of the season.
Here is that second chance. That do-over.
Win or lose on Monday night, the Tar Heels have already succeeded this season. UNC goes to the Final Four more than most schools do – more than any school has gone, in college basketball history – but these runs still don't happen all the time. You never know when your last one might be. Ask UCLA (nine years and counting since its most recent Final Four) and Indiana (15) and Arkansas (22) and N.C. State (34) about how rare these sorts of runs are.
And UNC has had two in back-to-back years. At the start of the NCAA tournament, Justin Jackson spoke of the power of second chances, the rarity of a do-over. Just reaching this point is difficult enough, but reaching it after the way last season ended?
“Not many things do you get to have redos,” Jackson said. “And Brice and Marcus, they didn't get to have a redo. Joel (James) didn't get to have a redo. But for us, we're blessed enough to be back in this position where we are. And we've worked our butts off all year.”
And so here's UNC's second chance. The Tar Heels have returned to the final Monday night of the season.