CHAPEL HILL — The names and faces, at least most of them, were familiar to the adoring crowd that came to the Smith Center to see them introduced for the first time this season.
There was Joel Berry, MVP of the 2016 ACC tournament, Isaiah Hicks, the league’s Sixth Man of the Year and of course, Mr. Personality himself, Theo Pinson. In all, six members of the North Carolina basketball team are back from the squad that came a Kris Jenkins buzzer-beater from winning the national championship last spring.
That in itself gives the Tar Heels a leg up in experience on many championship-caliber teams whose one-and-done stars are barely around long enough to learn their names.
But even as coach Roy Williams prepares his veteran team for what promises to be another successful season, the players on his mind most these days are two that were nowhere to be found at UNC’s annual “Late Night with Roy” extravaganza.
As is Williams’ habit, he used a golf analogy to describe the task the Tar Heels have ahead of them in replacing graduated stars Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige.
“Thirty years ago when the United States Ryder Cup team lost Arnold (Palmer) and Jack (Nicklaus), that wasn’t just two guys,” the Hall of Fame coach said at UNC’s media day Tuesday. “Well, Brice and Marcus weren’t just two bodies for us. They were our two best players — the best defender, the best outside scorer, the best inside scorer, the best rebounder, the guy who dominated things around the rim on the defensive end.
“Those six guys who were in the games at crunch time, that’s really going to help them. But now they’ve got to step up there when the defense is aimed at them. That’s a huge difference in basketball. That’s where these guys have got to take their step.”
Chief among those most anxious about making the transition from subordinate to star is Berry.
The junior point guard came into his own both as a scorer and ballhandler last season while averaging 12.8 points and 3.8 assists per game and playing his best basketball at the most important time of the year. Berry said he learned a lot from watching Paige and plans to pattern his leadership style after that of his former mentor and backcourt mate.
As for handling defenses designed to stop him not someone else, that’s something he’s going to have to figure out on his own.
“That’s a big thing for me this year,” Berry said. “Defenses will be focusing on me and maybe Justin (Jackson) and Kennedy (Meeks), so I’ve been keeping that in mind and just knowing that each and every play I’m going to have to come out and play my hardest.”
Berry teamed with freshman big man Tony Bradley to win a shooting contest, then looked solid while leading the Blue team in Friday’s intrasquad scrimmage — always the highlight of the “Late Night” festivities. He made his first three 3-point attempts and scored nine points according to unofficial stats, but his one miss was a 3-pointer in overtime that could have tied the game.
“It hurt, but one thing I’m glad to see is that all the guys competed,” Berry said after the scrimmage. “That’s what we need to do to get back to where we want to be.”
The Tar Heels also need a consistently aggressive Jackson and he was just that Friday in the debut of the new 2016-17 Tar Heels, leading the White team to a 40-37 victory with 13 points, including the go-ahead trey in the 90-second extra period, to go along with five rebounds.
Among the incoming freshman, Bradley made the biggest impact with five points on a perfect 2 for 2 from the floor and 1 for 1 from the line. He also had three rebounds for the Blue team.
Because UNC only has three players on its roster that stand 6-foot-9 or taller, Bradley is almost certain to have the biggest immediate role among the newcomers this season.
But to a man, the returning core has also been impressed with freshmen perimeter players Seventh Woods and Brandon Robinson. Neither was especially sharp in Friday’s scrimmage, with each scoring four points on a combined 3 for 9 shooting.
That’s to be expected, said teammate Pinson — a junior who knows what it’s like to be out on the court in front of a crowd for the first time wearing Carolina blue.
“I remember talking to them when we were getting introduced and I said ‘y’all nervous? And they said, no, we’re good,'” Pinson said. “Then the lights cut off. ‘Oh, crap.’ I’m like, yeah, it’s always like that. “High school is one thing with a little gym, but when you’re in the Dean Smith Center it’s another level. I’m really happy for them. They can get that under their belt and now, next time we’re out there it’s for real, it’s go time.”