For North Carolina, ‘Redemption’ has never been so sweet

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GLENDALE, Ariz. — Joel Berry II’s parents didn’t like the tattoo, not at first.

On Monday night — a night they spent watching their son score 22 points and dish out six assists, a night where Berry’s steadfast belief in himself, in his teammates, paid off with a national title win over Gonzaga — they both had that same tattoo in the same spot on their arm.

The Berry family motto is ‘Believe’. Has been as long as Joel II can remember. “Believe in what you want,” Kathie, Joel’s mother, said. “Believe you can win. That’s just what we live.” It’s what Joel II has lived, too, never more so than in the 364 days since his dream was snatched from his fingers in the 4.7 seconds it took Ryan Arcidiacono to find Kris Jenkins for that game-winning, title-snatching three.

It would have been easy for Joel II to give up, to assume that his one shot at hanging a banner in the Dean Dome was gone. That’s why he got the word tattooed on the inside of his left bicep right before the start of this season.

“It’s something that I want to be able to down and see, no matter what,” Joel II said. “Look, I’m not a big fan of tattoos. If I get a tattoo, I want it to mean something to me. This right here has got me throughout this whole season. To be here right now, it’s just all because of believing in myself and believing in my teammates, believing in what the coaches want us to do.”

“That word. It just means so much.”

His parents knew that, which is why they, along with Berry’s four brothers and sisters, inked up the inside of their left bicep with an identical, removable tattoo for Monday’s game. They just had to find a way to show it to him.

Joel II can hear that whistle anywhere, man. Even in domed football stadium packed to the gills with more than 77,000 buzzed, sunburnt fans that spent a little too much time tailgating outside on a beautiful, 85 degree day in the desert, Berry can hear that whistle.

“My mom has been doing that whistle since I was five years old,” Berry said. “Sometimes that whistle is because I’m in trouble, and sometimes it’s because she’s trying to get our attention. I can hear it from anywhere.”

On Monday night, he heard it right before the start of the game. When he turned around, the entire Berry clan was flexing their arm, pointing to their left bicep.

“It almost made me cry right then.”



That wasn’t the only time that Berry cried on the University of Phoenix Stadium floor.

After he gobbled up a loose ball with 15 seconds left, after he found Justin Jackson for a dunk that put the Tar Heels ahead 70-65 with 12 seconds left, after Kennedy Meeks picked off a Gonzaga pass with nine seconds left, Berry headed to the free throw line, game in hand, redemption complete.

And emotionally, he couldn’t handle it.

“I was about to cry at the free throw line,” Berry said. “It was just a relief. I couldn’t believe it. I told the ref, ‘sir, i need a timeout,’ and I went to the sideline. ‘Look, I needed that, I’m about to lose it.’ Coach was like, ‘don’t lose it yet. Just knock these free throws in, then we can celebrate.’ And I went up there and I missed the first one.”

“I knocked in the second one and I was running down the court and I was crying.”

He wasn’t alone. Theo Pinson was crying before the final buzzer sounded. Isaiah Hicks copped to having to struggle to hold back tears. Justin Jackson didn’t bother holding them back. “Tears of joy started falling and I couldn’t control it,” he said.

This moment was cathartic for the Tar Heels. A year ago, at this same time, they were the ones left in tears following one of the most memorable plays in basketball history, a title-winning, buzzer-beating three from Kris Jenkins. After that shot went down, Williams said, “the feeling of inadequacy in the locker room last year is the worst feeling I’ve ever had.”

That is what North Carolina has been carrying with them all season long. It’s part of the reason Berry got that tattoo on his arm. It’s why the team’s group text has been named ‘Redemption’. It’s why the screen-saver on Pinson’s phone is a picture of him immediately after last year’s title game loss. It’s all hokey and cliché and narrative-driven, and it’s all too painfully accurate. Williams told his team that they had a chance to do this at the team’s first meeting back in August, that this was a group that had the pieces on their roster to avenge last year’s loss, to allow them to experience what it was like to be in a title-winning locker room.

But that didn’t always help.

“Every time I tried to think about us winning it I thought about the outcome of last year,” Nate Britt II said.

(Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

The other subplot of the Tar Heel season is the looming investigation that is being held over the head of the university. We’re approaching a two years since North Carolina first received a Notice of Allegations for violations committed in a wide-reaching academic scandal that has forever tarnished the sterling reputation of North Carolina. Not the basketball program, the school.

I understand why it would be hard for a neutral to be happy for North Carolina. Not only is there the skepticism that the NCAA would ever actually hammer one of their flagship programs, but UNC also has the money to fund an elite legal defense team that will make every effort to ensure that this is the most difficult investigation the NCAA will ever do.

I can’t blame anyone for that.

But understand, the scandal at North Carolina, the one that has muddied Williams’ name and could eventually result in a national title banner coming down, had nothing to do with any of the players on the floor tonight. They didn’t reap the benefits of any fake classes. Most of them came to North Carolina despite the fact that this investigation is ongoing.

“I wish it got no attention here, because this should be about the kids,” Williams said. “I wish it got no attention. But I know it’s out there. But the last three or four years have been very hard. I told you, people have questioned my integrity, and that means more to me than anything.”

“I know that we did nothing wrong. I know that I did nothing wrong. I’ve been investigated 77 times, it seems like. And everybody came to that conclusion. But there were some mistakes made at my university that I’m not happy about, either.”

It’s debatable — and probably inaccurate — to say that Williams did nothing wrong, but it’s 100 percent correct to say as much about the players. Their life in the public eye has been made that much more annoying by the fact that they have to answer questions about it. More importantly, they’re the ones that took last year’s loss, and the ones that will celebrate this year’s win, the hardest.

“After the Oregon game,” Berry recalled of a conversation he had with home roommate on the road, Pinson, “we had just talked about we get another shot at this, and we’re not going to let it get away from us.”

“Even if i have to steal that trophy from Gonzaga,” Pinson said back, “I’m not leaving that gym without the trophy.”

“We made that dream come true. I can forget about that shot from last year,” Berry said. “When we wake up in the morning it’s going to be us on the front of the newspaper.”

All it took was a title to get over last year’s heart break.


(Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Things are going to be different in the Britt household from now on.

Nate II took last year’s loss particularly hard. Kris Jenkins, the man responsible for all of that heartbreak, is his brother. Jenkins lived with the Britts in the Washington D.C. area, moving in with the family in 2007 when they became his legal guardians, which seemed like a great idea until big brother hit the shot that gave him a ring and left little brother in tears. Imagine being reminded of that moment every time you walk by your brother’s room. Imagine being reminded of that moment every time he wears his national title hat or his national title t-shirt. Hell, imagine being reminded of that moment every time you see your brother.

“I’ve got balance in my house now,” Nate Sr. said.

And this time, it was Nate II that made Jenkins’ eyes water.

“I didn’t cry last year,” Jenkins said, moments after getting a bear hug from Ramses, the North Carolina mascot, while wearing a Nate Britt t-shirt jersey.

“I cried a little bit tonight.”

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

NCAA tourney chair addresses non-conference strength of schedule and quadrant system

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The way the NCAA tournament selection committee picks teams for inclusion into the sport’s crowning event is always under intense scrutiny. It’s a national past time, really.

One of the easiest targets is the RPI, an obviously flawed metric. It was the topic of discussion recently in the Omaha World-Herald, most notably the non-conference strength of schedule component.

That post spurred a lengthy response from Creighton athletic director and selection committee chairman Bruce Rasmussen, who defended the committee’s work with a metric that it acknowledges to be imperfect.

Here’s Rasmussen:

“Non-conference SOS is not a predominant tool in selections.

In fact, each year that I have been on the committee, we have discussed why you have to look beyond the number to evaluate a team’s non-conference strength of schedule, and even with this qualifier, non-conference schedule ranks well behind other factors such as how you did against other tournament caliber teams, did you win the games you were supposed to win, and how did you do away from home since winning away from home is difficult and the tournament games are all games away from home.

“I have argued each year that I have been on the committee that non-conference SOS should be taken off the team sheet, but until we develop a new metric it is staying. However, understand that the committee understands its fallacies (as we also recognize other weaknesses in the current RPI formula) and it is not a prominent factor in decisions.”

Rasmussen also examined the quadrant system being used:

“Many think that the first and second quadrants are silos and that every win in the first quadrant or every win in the second quadrant is treated equally.  I think it is important that while we refer to first and second quadrant wins, we also better communicate that this is only a sorting mechanism and each game in these quadrants is looked at differently. They don’t have the same value.”

So while it’s fair to question NCAA selection committee’s decisions and the way in which they make them, it’s clear there is an extensive amount of well-intentioned thought put into the process.

College Basketball Coaches Poll: Michigan State moves atop the Top 25

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Michigan State is your new No. 1 team in the country, according to the USA Today Coaches Poll.

The Spartans received 20 of a possible 32 first-place votes after their comeback from 27 points down to beat Northwestern on the road on Saturday.

Virginia is still sitting at No. 2 while Villanova and Xavier round out the top four. Duke climbed a few spots to No. 5.

Here is the full coaches poll:

1. Michigan State (20 first-place votes)
2. Virginia (8)
3. Villanova (4)
4. Xavier
5. Duke
6. Gonzaga
7. Texas Tech
8. Kansas
9. Purdue
10. North Carolina
11. Cincinnati
12. Wichita State
13. Auburn
14. Arizona
15. Ohio State
16. Michigan
17. Clemson
18. Rhode Island
19. Tennessee
20. Saint Mary’s
21. West Virginia
22. Nevada
23. Houston
24. Middle Tennessee State
25. Arizona State

Was Bob Huggins justified in his anger over foul shots in Kansas win over West Virginia?

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Much has been made of Bob Huggins’ ejection on Saturday evening, as West Virginia blew yet another double-digit lead at Phog Allen Fieldhouse as Kansas picked up a critical, 77-69 win.

The ejection was hilarious, and everything that I want to remember Huggy Bear by: Cussing out all three refs as he earns his second technical and an ejection while needing to hold up his pants with his hands:

Huggs is a national treasure.

The more interesting conversation, however, centered around why Huggins was tossed. Kansas shot 35 free throws on Saturday. West Virginia shot just two, which is an absolutely staggering number.

And I thought this was deserving of further scrutiny.

Let’s start with the obvious: West Virginia fouls a lot, enough that it’s not an exaggeration to say that a foul could probably be called on every possession. Part of the strategy of playing the way that Press Virginia does is that they are betting that officials are not going to call a foul on every possession, because they won’t. West Virginia is also a jump-shooting team this season, as nearly 40 percent of their field goal attempts come from beyond the arc. Their free throw rate both offensively and defensively is dead last in the Big 12.

Put another way, the Mountaineers are always going to be outshot from the free throw line.

Then you have to combine that with the Kansas stats. The Jayhawks are second in the Big 12 on offensive free throw rate and third in defensive free throw rate. Throw in the home court advantage that comes with playing in the Phog, and the safest bet in the world would have been Kansas outshooting West Virginia from the charity stripe.

It also needs to be noted that the 35-2 advantage was 27-2 before West Virginia started fouling intentionally and before Kansas went to the line for those two late Huggins’ technical fouls.

But that didn’t stop Huggins from going off in the press conference after the game:

“We blew the game last year,” Huggins said. “We should have won the game. We had the game. They did a great job, they made shots, we threw it around, we missed free throws, we did everything humanly possible to lose the game. That was us.”

“I’ve been doing this 40 years. I don’t I’ve ever been in a game where we shot two free throws. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a game where the disparity 35-2. I’ve never been in a game like that.”

But perhaps his most telling line was this, when asked what his message to his team was:

“It wasn’t their fault.”

It’s pretty clear that Huggins believed his team was hosed on the road.

The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.

West Virginia is normally going to shoot fewer free throws than their opponents. Kansas is normally going to shoot more free throws that their opponents. Studies have proven that home environments in college basketball have an impact referee decisions as much as any sport in the world, including English soccer. That’s part of having a home court advantage, and it’s part of the advantage of having a rowdy, raucous and loud crowd. It’s why places like Phog Allen, and Cameron Indoor Stadium, and Koch Arena, and the McKale Center, and anywhere else with a big and loud fan base.

But 35-2 is 35-2, and it will take quite a bit of video evidence to proof to me that Kansas did not get a significant benefit from playing in front of their home crowd on Saturday night.

So did the referees cost West Virginia the game?

Debatable. I’d argue that Jevon Carter missing some shots and Daxter Miles’ insistence on passing up open threes to try and pass the ball to players going for a rebound played a pretty big role, as did the fact that Kansas is a really good team that made some big shots down the stretch.

But the whistles played some kind of a role.

Just like they always do in the Phog.

College Basketball AP Poll: Virginia, Michigan State, Villanova top the Top 25

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Virginia remained in the No. 1 spot in the AP Poll while Michigan State and Villanova still sit at No. 2 and No. 3 with Xavier once again in fourth.

The biggest change in the poll was that Duke rose to No. 5 after three straight wins; they were No. 12 last week.

Kentucky is still not a part of the top 25.

Here is the full AP Poll:

1. Virginia (42 first-place votes)
2. Michigan State (19)
3. Villanova (4)
4. Xavier
5. Duke
t-6. Texas Tech
t-6. Gonzaga
8. Kansas
9. Purdue
10. North Carolina
11. Cincinnati
12. Auburn
13. Wichita State
14. Arizona
15. Clemson
16. Ohio State
17. Michigan
18. Rhode Island
19. Tennessee
20. Nevada
21. West Virginia
22. Saint Mary’s
23. Houston
24. Middle Tennessee
25. Florida State

VIDEO: Wichita State celebrates in locker room after win over Cincinnati

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Wichita State went into Cincinnati — well, Northern Kentucky — on Sunday evening and landed their biggest win of the season.

They were fired up about it, as you might imagine.

And their locker room celebrating after the win was, as the kids say, litty:

Here’s the funny part to me: This game wasn’t played at Cincinnati. It wasn’t played at Wichita State. It was played at Northern Kentucky, where the Bearcats are playing their home games while they wait for the renovations on their arena to be completed.

Which means that some poor NKU employee that had nothing to do with either of these two programs had to spend the time cleaning up this mess.