It’s easy to watch Joel Berry in his No. 2 jersey and take a trip down memory lane.
After all, he has a penchant for hitting big shots when Carolina needs it most. He rarely smiles on the court, instead honing in on what’s required of him in each moment. He’s a rugged defender with the build to harass opposing guards and his toughness might be his best attribute.
Berry hasn’t yet reached the heights of former Tar Heel Raymond Felton, who also wore No. 2, but only 40 minutes from winning a National Championship, he’s following Felton’s 11-year-old point guard championship blueprint – score when needed, lock down on defense and be steady.
“He’s been our most consistent player all year," Roy Williams said last week. “(Since last year) I think he saw some of the things he needed to do, he needed to improve. He worked his little rear-end off on it.”
Joel Berry Sr. believes parts of his son’s consistency were forged last summer in Chapel Hill.
“How he became a great player back in high school was staying disciplined,” Berry Sr. told Inside Carolina this weekend. “When things aren’t happening the way you want them to happen, you have to get back to the things you used to do. When you put in the work, good things happen – always.”
During the preseason, however, Berry wasn’t sure if he’d even start for the Tar Heels. He and roommate Theo Pinson split time opposite senior Marcus Paige in UNC’s starting unit during practices. After a hand-injury to Paige in November, Berry began the season as UNC’s starting point guard.
“That time was real important to him,” Berry Sr. said. “It gave him a chance to realize that ‘I can do this. I can play the point guard position.’ It just gave him a lot of time to grow up without being criticized about anything. It just gave him a chance to build his confidence and the coach to build confidence in him.”
The only things bigger than some of the shots Berry has hit this season – crucial threes against Kansas State, Providence and Virginia come to mind, as do the driving floaters and layups during this NCAA Tournament run – are the shots he hasn’t taken.
He’s rapidly learned what’s arguably the most important skill for a point guard, the ability to weigh “when” vs. “when not to" – when to shoot, when to pass, when to push tempo, when to slow things down.
“That comes from paying attention to your film sessions,” Berry Sr. said. “During that time you’re assessing your mistakes and the things you did right and wrong. That’s a lot of meetings and a lot of time studying the game to improve.”
Since UNC’s home loss to Duke on Feb. 17, Berry has had an ORtg (Offensive Rating) of 100 or more in each game, including a season-high 176 in wins against Virginia and Notre Dame. ORtg measures points produced per 100 possessions. Four of Berry’s six best offensive performances – based on ORtg – have come in the ACC and NCAA tournaments.
“Being patient and having confidence in yourself are the keys,” Berry Sr. said. “He’s learned the system and he’s getting guys the ball and they have a lot of confidence in him. The coaches have confidence in him. Now, it’s just ‘hey, go out and do what you do.’ It makes a big difference when you know those guys that you are playing hard for, and the coaches you’re out there playing hard for, know you can do it. There’s nothing like it, it takes your confidence to another level.”
In UNC’s national semifinal win over Syracuse on Saturday, Berry had eight points, 10 assists, seven rebounds and just one turnover. In the NCAA tournament, he’s notched 26 assists and five turnovers (including a 23:2 ratio in the last three games). Heading into the national championship game in 2009, Ty Lawson had 28 assists and six turnovers in four games, and in 2005 Raymond Felton had 34 assists and 16 turnovers in five games.
Consider that Berry's turnover average of 1.51 per game is the lowest by a Tar Heel starting point guard since the school began recording the statistic in 1981.
“I always tell him to go out and play hard for your brothers,” explained Berry Sr. “I tell him to realize it’s not about you. He’s not just playing hard for himself. He has to understand that he’s out there playing hard for the team and that makes a hell of a difference.”
Just one game separates Berry from joining Lawson, Felton, Derrick Phelps, Jimmy Black and Tommy Kearns in one of the most exclusive fraternities in basketball – point guards on NCAA championship teams at Carolina.
Regardless of Monday’s outcome, though, Berry Sr. used one word to describe the Tar Heels’ run to the national title game.
“Priceless,” he said. “It’s one thing to come and watch the team as an alum or as a fan. But to watch your son out there on the court, it means the world to our family. We’re going to enjoy the moment.”