Inside Carolina/Jim Hawkins

Backcourt Criticism Fuels Joel Berry, Tar Heels

UNC contends its perimeter play will be a strength, not a weakness, in 2016-17.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Joel Berry has heard the criticism directed at the post-Marcus Paige North Carolina backcourt. He’s seen the tweets suggesting there’s nothing special about the Tar Heels’ perimeter players, at least nothing to get excited about.

That’s why he offered one word in response to a question at the ACC’s Operation Basketball media event on Wednesday about how to define UNC’s backcourt: “Underrated.”

Berry acknowledged he’s always on social media, so he knows what’s being said. And while he tries to not let the words bother him, human nature has a way of intervening.

“It got to me because we’re returning a lot of guys from that run last year,” Berry said. “We might not have the most exciting players, whether it’s jumping up and dunking the ball or someone that’s a top pick, but in regards to getting the job done and having great players, I think that we do have that in our backcourt.”

Berry is the cornerstone of UNC’s backcourt, a season removed from ACC Tournament MVP and NCAA Tournament All-Final Four honors. He’s joined by veterans in senior guard Nate Britt (111 career games played) and junior wings Theo Pinson (4.5 ppg, 2.9 apg in ’15-16) and Justin Jackson (12.2 ppg). With Pinson sidelined indefinitely with a broken right foot, sophomore Kenny Williams and freshmen Seventh Woods and Brandon Robinson will be called upon to provide quality minutes.

One key reason for Berry’s faith in his backcourt is perimeter shooting. The Tar Heels shot a school-record low 32.7 percent from 3-point range (224-of-685) in 2015-16, prompting a rededication to the long ball this offseason.

“A lot of guys spent a lot of time in the gym this summer getting their shot,” Berry said. “Kenny Williams hit one three last year, but in practice, he has been shooting the ball really well. Brandon Robinson has come in and shot the ball really well. Justin is doing what Justin does; he’s shooting it great. That’s one thing that we’re going to need this year with having that inside-outside attack.”

Those efforts have continued into the preseason with players arriving early to practice and leaving late to get up extra shots. So far, so good.

“It seems like 3-pointers are layups for some of them,” senior forward Isaiah Hicks said. “That’s the crazy part. Especially in pickup, when someone is open, just run down the court because you know it’s going in.”

Berry’s steady hand at the point, along with the potential for improved perimeter shooting production, will go a long way in removing the underrated tag for the backcourt.

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