LAHAINA, Hawaii – On Tuesday night at the Lahaina Civic Center, Justin Jackson dismissed a question asking if North Carolina was clicking on all cylinders, noting the season was only six games old. Less than 24 hours later, Kennedy Meeks had little interest in comparing this team to last season’s national runner-up for similar reasons.
While fans and media have harped on the departures of Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson ever since Kris Jenkins’s 29-footer swished through the net in Houston last April, the Tar Heels elected instead to utilize that postseason run in a more productive manner: as the starting point for their 2016-17 season.
“I think that since we have such a veteran team that went on that run last year, we all know what it takes to be able to get back to that spot,” junior point guard Joel Berry said after UNC won its third Maui Invitational championship in its last four trips. “And so that's one thing, we have a chip on our shoulder and we're going to continue to get better as a team as the year goes on. We're playing good right now, but I think we still can get better.”
There were a host of question marks surrounding this team entering the preseason. Without Paige or Johnson in the lineup, would Berry and Justin Jackson be able to handle being the top names on opponents’ scouting reports? Would UNC’s post play fill the void on the boards left by Johnson’s move to the NBA? And would the team be tough enough to outwork opponents in grinders instead of relying too much on pure talent and finesse?
Valid questions, all of them. And for the Tar Heels to provide legitimate answers less than two weeks into the season is seemingly unfathomable, yet that’s what has happened.
Berry has followed in the footsteps of Raymond Felton and Ty Lawson, who elevated their play in their junior seasons to drive UNC’s offensive blitzkrieg. The Apopka, Fla. native is averaging 17.1 points per game on 55.1 percent shooting and may be even better on the defensive end, as evidenced by his lockdown of Wisconsin’s Bronson Koenig (2 points, 1-of-13 shooting). Meanwhile, Jackson has thrived as a secondary option, scoring in double figures in all seven games and averaging 15.4 points per game.
In the post, Isaiah Hicks has stayed out of foul trouble for the most part and Kennedy Meeks turned in arguably the best performance of his career against the Badgers and averaged 15 points and 11.3 rebounds in Maui. Additionally, freshman center Tony Bradley has proven to be a legitimate post option (10.7 ppg, 6.3 rpg).
Driving the aforementioned individual standout play is an attitude of toughness and hustle interwoven throughout the roster that has been lacking at various times in recent years. Once an Achilles’ heel for this program, it’s not only been a strength through seven games, but also a bit of an emerging identity.
“We're not that same team a few years ago where everybody kept calling us soft,” Hicks said. “That's not us. We look at it as like we're on a mission trying to get back to Monday night.”
That vast array of early developments is why Roy Williams went on the offensive following the 71-56 dismantling of No. 16 Wisconsin.
“I'm not going to go out and make my reservations for the Final Four,” the 14th-year UNC head coach said. “I don't even know where the hell it is… I'm not jumping on any boat trying to figure out how great we are. We can stink it up with the rest of them. We've just got to get better every day. I've never seen a national championship won the day before Thanksgiving. It's usually won that first Monday night in April.”
What’s intriguing about the Tar Heels is their ample room for growth. Junior wing Theo Pinson and sophomore forward Luke Maye, both key options in UNC’s rotation, were sidelined due to injury for the Hawaii trip. Sophomore wing Kenny Williams, along with the three-man freshman class, are only just becoming acclimated to serious minutes at the college level. And from a 30,000-foot view is the fact that Williams always seems to have his teams playing their best ball as the calendar turns from February to March.
When asked if this Maui Invitational title team had the same national championship potential as his 2004 and 2008 Maui title teams, Williams pumped the brakes once more.
“It remains to be seen,” he said. “There's probably, pick a number, 15 to 20 teams that have the potential to do it. You've got to stay healthy. You've got to get lucky and you've got to improve. If this is the best basketball that we play the entire season, then, no, we're not good enough. But I feel we can improve.”
For a team already playing like one of the nation’s best, that’s a reason for optimism.