Wolfpack star Smith presents major challenge for Berry, UNC

Wednesdays triple double underscores the challenge Joel Berry and his Tar Heel teammates will have in trying to stop -- or at least limit -- rival NC State and its freshman star Dennis Smith Jr.

Rob Kinnan—USA Today Sports
Jan 4

CHAPEL HILL — Star guards Dennis Smith Jr., of NC State and North Carolina’s Joel Berry will be the center of attention when, weather permitting, their teams meet for the first of two regular season showdowns on Saturday. And yet according to Berry, it would be a major mistake to get caught paying too much attention to that one marquee individual battle. “It’s going to be a great game,” the Tar Heels’ point guard said. “But I’m not going to make it into a one-on-one matchup. It’s about North Carolina going against NC State. It’s going to be a fun game, a fun matchup. But at the end of the day it’s about our team going up against them, not just me going against him.” Berry is right about the abundance of talent that will be on the court at the Smith Center. But even with several other All-ACC caliber players dotting both rosters, Smith and Berry are the catalysts that make both teams go. That was never more evident than in their most recent games. Berry made 7 of 10 3-pointers on his way to a career-high 31 points to help rally the Tar Heels to an overtime win at Clemson on Tuesday. A day later, Smith recorded only the second triple double in Wolfpack history while hitting for 27 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists in a 104-78 dismantling of 21st-ranked Virginia Tech. That well-rounded performance underscores the challenge Berry and his teammates will have in trying to stop — or at least limit — Smith’s effectiveness as they look to extend their recent dominance over their neighboring rival UNC has won 25 of 28 meetings since coach Roy Williams returned to his alma mater to coach the Tar Heels in 2003. “Dennis doesn’t really have any weaknesses at point guard,” Williams said. “He can shoot it, he can drive it to the basket and finish with his tremendous leaping ability. He can pass the ball, he can defend, he can take the ball away from you. He’s got the whole package. He’s one of the premier point guards in our country already.” The biggest problem in trying to defend Smith is that he has so many different ways to beat you. “I think you’ve got to defend the total game because that’s what he does,” Williams said. “He’s not just a shooter, he’s not just a penetrator, so you can’t say, ‘okay we’ve got to stop his penetration,’ because if we back up he can shoot it in. I think you’ve got to play the total defensive game and you’ve got to try to do everything.” Although guarding Smith will likely be a team effort, including a contribution by junior Theo Pinson in his first game back from a preseason foot injury, the bulk of the responsibility will fall on Berry’s shoulders. The 6-foot junior is UNC’s best perimeter defender. But he’s also second on the team in scoring while leading the Tar Heels in assists, so he’ll have to be careful not to expend too much energy on one end of the court. “You just have to balance it,” Berry said. “I know last game against Clemson, I kind of had it to where I was playing a lot of offense and my defensive grade wasn’t that good. So I have to make sure I’m balancing it out and be able to know when to exert more energy on one play than the other.” The biggest thing Berry may have going for him is that Smith will have to work just as hard in dealing with him as the he will in facing the young Wolfpack star. “I think Joel Berry is one of the best point guards in the country,” State coach Mark Gottfried said earlier this week. “I’ve watched him since high school. I have great respect for Joel and his game. He’s playing at a high level, shooting the ball at a high level right now. ” He’s kind of the glue that holds everything together for their team.(Going up against him) will be a great opportunity for Dennis and for our team.”