North Carolina Tar Heels

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Player of the Week: Justin Jackson and Joel Berry II, North Carolina

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At this point, it’s almost too difficult to separate the contributions being made by Joel Berry II and Justin Jackson.

Berry is the guy that makes everything easier for No. 11 North Carolina offensively. Jackson has turned into the sharpshooter and the closer that the Tar Heels have lacked the last two seasons. And the two of them have essentially taken turns making the big shots down the stretch for UNC this season.

On Wednesday, in a win at Wake Forest, it was Jackson burying a clutch three in a game where he led the Tar Heels with 19 points. On Saturday, it was Berry that had an answer for every Florida State run. He finished with 26 points against FSU. Jackson had 22, and he had a three in a late run that put the game away.

At this point, these two make up the best one-two punch in the ACC. They deserve to be in the same conversation with the likes of De’Aaron Fox-Malik Monk, Josh Hart-Jalen Brunson and Frank Mason III-Josh Jackson when it comes to the best one-two punches in the sport. Both have earned at least consideration for all-american teams.

They are the reason that UNC is very much a contender to get back to the Final Four and win that elusive national title.

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THEY WERE GOOD, TOO

  • Nigel Williams-Goss, Gonzaga: Williams-Goss was the best player on the floor for the Zags on Saturday night as they handed Saint Mary’s their worst loss of the season, 79-56. It was quite the statement for Gonzaga, as Saint Mary’s was considered by many to be a real contender for the WCC title. Is it too early to start talking about Gonzaga’s undefeated season?
  • Bryce Alford, UCLA: Alford put together one of the best shooting performances we’ve seen this season, hitting 9-for-14 from three in a 37-point outburst at Colorado. Alford also hit a huge three late in the second half of the Bruins’ win at Utah, only the fourth time in six years that a Pac-12 team has swept the Mountain schools on the road.
  • London Perrantes, Virginia: Virginia bounced back from a rough start to ACC play with a pair of wins this week, including a win at Clemson. Perrantes was fantastic in the two wins, averaging 24.5 points and hitting a number of critical shots late in the win at Clemson. He’s turning into the go-to guy that the Cavaliers lost in Malcolm Brogdon.
  • Lauri Markkanen, Arizona: Beating an in-state rival like Arizona State is always awesome. Scoring 30 points in a game is always awesome. Scoring 30 points in a blowout win over your in-state rival? Priceless. Or something like that, right? Regardless, Markkanen has more than lived up to the hype he had entering the season.
  • Vlad Brodziansky, TCU: The Horned Frogs moved to 3-2 in the Big 12 this season with wins at Texas and over Iowa State at home, and Brodziansky was the biggest reason why. The 6-foot-11 Slovakian averaged 22 points, 10 boards and three blocks while shooting better than 70 percent form the floor.

No. 11 North Carolina pulls away late, hands No. 9 Florida State first ACC loss

HOUSTON, TEXAS - APRIL 04:  Joel Berry II #2 of the North Carolina Tar Heels shoots the ball in the first half against the Villanova Wildcats during the 2016 NCAA Men's Final Four National Championship game at NRG Stadium on April 4, 2016 in Houston, Texas.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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Joel Berry II scored 26 points and Isaiah Hicks added a career-high 22 points as No. 11 North Carolina protected their home court and handed No. 11 Florida State their first ACC loss of the season.

Florida State got 18 points from Dwayne Bacon while Jonathan Isaac finished with 17 points, 12 boards, three steals and two assists.

Both Florida State and North Carolina are now 4-1 in ACC play, sitting a game behind Notre Dame for first place in the league’s regular season standings.

Here are three things you can takeaway from this game:

1. North Carolina is going to ride their studs: North Carolina has the best one-two punch in the ACC, and they’re going to ride that one-two punch as far as they’ll carry them. Joel Berry II has been simply terrific this season, and Saturday afternoon was no different. He finished with 26 points, getting 17 of them in the first half, including a flurry of eight straight points right before halftime that helped to push North Carolina’s lead to nine.

Justin Jackson was just as good. He had 22 points on Saturday, hitting a number of big shots in the second half, including a pair of run-ending threes and a tough, off-balance runner late in the half that helped hold off a surging Seminoles team. Both Berry and Jackson entered North Carolina as five-star prospects in the same class, and while it took a little bit longer than we expected for them to start to impact the game at that level, they’re doing it now.

2. But their bench is pretty good, too: You know who else was in that recruiting class with Berry and Jackson? Theo Pinson. He, too, was a five-star prospect that hasn’t exactly lived up to that potential during his Tar Heel career. He was dealing with a broken foot earlier in the season, and while he officially returned to the floor last Sunday against N.C. State, his “return” came on Saturday. Pinson had 12 points, 10 boards and three assists, and he was responsible for eight straight points – a rim-rattling dunk, an assist for a three and a three of his own – in an 8-2 run late in the game that turned an 80-76 lead to an 88-78 lead. That statsheet-stuffing role is something that the Tar Heels need, and it looks like Pinson is finally ready to provide it.

Luke Maye also had himself a pretty good game. With Kennedy Meeks struggling with fouls and Tony Bradley out due to a concussion, Maye played arguably his best game as a Tar Heel, notching 15 rebounds and holding his own against Florida State’s much bigger and more athletic front line. Maye is never going to be a star for the Tar Heels, but being able to play the role he played today – a fourth big man that can hold his own – fills a hole on the roster.

3. Don’t let the final margin fool you: Because Florida State was in this thing throughout. Every time North Carolina hit FSU with a run, the Seminoles had an answer despite the fact that Xavier Rathan-Mayes did not play as well as he usually does. I’m not sure Florida State could have been called the favorite to win the ACC, but losing on the road to North Carolina by 13 in a game where the spread in Vegas was seven is not exactly an indictment on the team. They’re a contender that took a competitive loss at the team that is probably the best team in the ACC.

VIDEO: Pinson crashes Williams’ press conference

North Carolina's Theo Pinson comes up to the stage to have some fun with head coach Roy Williams and his teammates during a news conference for the NCAA Final Four tournament college basketball championship game Sunday, April 3, 2016, in Houston. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
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Theo Pinson made his season debut Sunday for North Carolina, going for 13 minutes in a blowout win over NC State after a foot injury had sidelined him up to that point.

But before he made his first appearance on the court, Pinson made his presence known by crashing coach Roy Williams’ press conference

Pinson, of course, is somewhat known for these types of hijinks, having done it at the NCAA tournament last year.

The 6-foot-6 junior had five rebound, five assists and four steals against the Wolfpack.

No. 9 North Carolina loses ACC opener at Georgia Tech

HOUSTON, TEXAS - APRIL 04:  Justin Jackson #44 of the North Carolina Tar Heels reacts after being defeated by the Villanova Wildcats 77-74 in the 2016 NCAA Men's Final Four National Championship game at NRG Stadium on April 4, 2016 in Houston, Texas.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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Josh Pastner’s tenure at Georgia Tech is young enough that the majority people outside the city of Memphis, including the numerous fans that didn’t actually make it to their the seats McCammish Pavilion on Saturday afternoon, probably didn’t realize he was the new Yellow Jacket head coach.

In the immortal words of comedic philosopher Kevin Hart, “You gon’ learn today.”

The Yellow Jackets opened up ACC play on Saturday afternoon with a 75-63 win over No. 9 North Carolina in Atlanta. Josh Okogie led the way for Georgia Tech with 26 points, five boards and three assists while Josh Heath chipped in with 15 points off the bench, a terrific performance and a terrific win that will be the feather in the cap of Pastner’s inaugural season regardless of how it ends.

So good for him. Pastner is a good man that had an ugly split with Memphis which gave him a reputation nationally that would make Scott Drew blush.

But the real story on Saturday was North Carolina, who started the day as 18-point favorites but will head home with a 12-point loss and an 0-1 record in ACC play. The issue was that the Tar Heels couldn’t figure out the zone that Georgia Tech was running. As a team, North Carolina shot just 33.3 percent from the floor and 5-for-26 (19.2%) from three and committed 20 turnovers.

But it was worse than that for North Carolina’s stars. Josh Jackson and Joel Berry II, two guys that are in contention for All-American honors, finished a combined 9-for-30 from the floor and 2-for-14 from three. They turned the ball over nine times. Throw in Kenny Williams’ 0-for-6 performance from three and, well, you get the point.

North Carolina couldn’t do anything on the offensive end of the floor, and that’s what the concern for this team has been and will be all season long. Their bigs were kept in check in part because Ben Lammers is one of the best rim protectors in the sport and in part because Tech could collapse defenders into the paint; if UNC is going to shoot like they shot from three, you let them shoot. The zone took away Berry’s ability to operate in isolation and eliminated the ball-screen and down-screen actions UNC had used against Kentucky to such effect.

The concern for Tar Geel fans now has to be whether or not Pastner just provided the ACC with a blueprint for how to beat them.

My guess?

Probably not.

Jackson and Berry are too good to play like this consistently, and Roy Williams is too good not to adjust what he does against a zone. He made the switch to a four-guard lineup with Jackson at the four in the second half, but it was too late to have any real impact.

More than anything, this is a loss that will end up being a drag on UNC’s seed and their chance to win the ACC regular season title. If the Tar Heels end up as a No. 3 seed on Selection Sunday, note this loss on their profile. If they finish a game behind the regular season champs, remember that they gave one away to one of the teams from the bottom of the conference.

Jackson leads No. 9 UNC past Monmouth, 102-74

North Carolina's Justin Jackson (44) reacts following a basket against Monmouth during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Chapel Hill, N.C., Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2016. North Carolina won 102-74. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) Justin Jackson is clicking just in time for No. 9 North Carolina to start conference play.

Jackson scored 28 points to lead the Tar Heels past Monmouth 102-74 on Wednesday night.

“Just seeing him come out like that is, like, `Wow,”‘ teammate Isaiah Hicks said. “We’re kind of like, `All right, Justin, what are you going to do?”‘

Kennedy Meeks added 17 points and 12 rebounds and Hicks finished with 15 points to help the Tar Heels (12-2) wrap up the nonconference portion of the schedule with their second straight win.

Micah Seaborn scored 19 points and Je’Lon Hornbeak added 17 before fouling out for Monmouth (10-3), which had its program-record nine-game winning streak snapped.

Three of the junior’s four highest-scoring games of his career have come in the past three weeks.

Jackson finished this one 9 of 15 from the field and his six 3-pointers were one shy of the career high he set Dec. 7 against Davidson in a game he scored a then-career-best 27 points. He surpassed that 10 days later with his 34-point performance against Kentucky .

“I just try to prepare myself for the game and take advantage of the opportunities,” Jackson said. “I mean, if y’all want to call it more confident or more aggressive or whatever you want to call it.”

The Tar Heels led by double figures for all but a few seconds of the second half but didn’t completely pull away from the pesky Hawks until Monmouth was whistled for three technical fouls in a 55-second span. One of those was called on coach King Rice – the starting point guard on North Carolina’s Final Four team in 1991.

“I let some things get to me that I shouldn’t have let get to me, and I think it went through our team and then our kids let their emotions get the best of them,” said Rice, who broke down in tears during his postgame news conference. “And North Carolina’s too good of a team for you to not keep your cool.”

Joel Berry hit all six free throws he attempted after those Ts, the last of which put the Tar Heels up by 20 with 16:59 to play.

Tony Bradley had 10 points for the Tar Heels. Justin Robinson scored all 16 of his points in the first half for Monmouth.

BIG PICTURE

Monmouth: There’s no shame for a mid-major to lose at the Dean Smith Center, where UNC is 105-4 against nonconference opponents under Roy Williams. Monmouth’s path to the NCAA Tournament almost assuredly runs through the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference – the Hawks were the preseason favorites to win the league – effectively making this a no-lose situation for them.

North Carolina: The Tar Heels didn’t let up much in their first game in a week and with the Atlantic Coast Conference opener looming in three days. It’s hard to nitpick a 28-point victory over a team that should make the NCAA Tournament, but UNC can’t be happy about the 17 turnovers that led to 19 points for Monmouth.

“I was a lot more comfortable our last game, after the second half (of a rout of Northern Iowa on Dec. 21), because I thought after Northern Iowa, we did some good things,” Williams said. “I don’t feel quite as good right now. … Whether I like it or not, (league play) is here.”

SICK HEELS

Williams said both he and Berry underwent two intravenous treatments in the hours leading up to the game. “Last night, I felt like junk and Joel felt like junk,” Williams said. “I was just hoping he would be able to play better than I could coach.”

UP NEXT

Monmouth: Returns home to take on Rider on Saturday as MAAC play begins.

North Carolina: Opens its ACC schedule Saturday with a trip to Georgia Tech.

Follow Joedy McCreary at http://twitter.com/joedyap.

More AP college basketball: http://www.collegebasketball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25.

Five Things We Learned This Week: Malik Monk, Justin Jackson and Aaron Holiday

LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 17:  Head coach John Calipari of the Kentucky Wildcats looks on as Malik Monk #5 celebrates after hitting a go-ahead 3-pointer late in the team's 103-100 win over the North Carolina Tar Heels during the CBS Sports Classic at T-Mobile Arena on December 17, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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1. Malik Monk is the most dangerous scorer in college basketball: We all saw the 47 points that he scored, right?

And if you didn’t see it you’ve at least heard about it by now, correct?

On Saturday, squaring off against No. 7 North Carolina, Monk went 18-for-28 from the floor and 8-for-12 from three en route to a 47-point eruption, which included a pair of threes in the final two minutes to give the Wildcats a 103-100 win. I honestly cannot remember an individual performance as impressive – I’m sure there’s been one – and it’s critical for the Wildcats for two reasons:

  1. That vaunted Kentucky defense doesn’t look so scary all of a sudden. In the two games they’ve played against elite competition, the Wildcats have now given up 197 points in 162 possessions, or 1.216 PPP, which is a pretty bad number. If this group is going to make a deep tournament run, they’re going to be playing in games where they will need to score in the 90s to win, and I think Monk has proven that he’s capable and unafraid of being the guy to carry this team.
  2. Monk is far and away the most effective player this Kentucky team has in half court settings. Coach Cal knows this, which is why he put in set plays to run specifically to ensure that Monk would get the ball in a spot where he can do some damage. They worked. The key to beating this Kentucky team is keeping them out of transition, where they are just too fast to defend. Forcing them to execute in the half court is the better option given some of the issues they have with perimeter shooting and floor-spacing, but if Monk is going to consistently be able to score when plays are run for him, it makes UK that much more effective offensively.
LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 17: Justin Jackson #44 of the North Carolina Tar Heels drives to the basket against De'Aaron Fox #0 of the Kentucky Wildcats during the CBS Sports Classic at T-Mobile Arena on December 17, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Kentucky won 103-100. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Justin Jackson. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

2. UNC’s stars gave us reason to believe in them: We learned just how valuable Joel Berry II was last week, when North Carolina struggled at home with Davidson and Tennessee as Berry nursed an injured ankle back to health. If that didn’t prove it to you, then his 23 points and seven assists on Saturday against Kentucky should have.

Berry was terrific.

He was also the second-best player on North Carolina that day, as junior wing Justin Jackson went for a career-high 34 points and kept the Tar Heels within striking distance while their front court seemingly spent the entire game battling foul trouble. That matters, because it is really the first time against competition like this that Jackson has shown that he’s capable of throwing the Tar Heels on his back and carrying them. He damn near led them to a win, too; his three with two minutes left to give UNC their first lead since the opening seconds will go down as one of the biggest shots he’ll ever make even if it doesn’t matter at this point.

The bottom line is this: I’m not sold on UNC’s front court. I think that the Tar Heels were a bit overrated after the way they started the season. But Jackson and Berry very nearly dragged this team to a come-from-behind win over a really good Kentucky team that had a star player going all NBA Jam. That’s notable even in a loss.

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3. Aaron Holiday is the best sixth-man in the country: There are 351 Division I programs in college basketball. There are, at most, five or six programs where Holiday wouldn’t step in and immediately start in their back court. There probably aren’t 20 teams in America where he wouldn’t be the best player on the roster. And yet, Holiday – the younger brother of NBA guards Jrue and Justin – is content working as UCLA’s sixth-man as a sophomore after starting his freshman season.

In fact, he’s more than content. He’s thriving, averaging 14.4 points, 4.1 assists and 1.4 steals. He’s shooting 53.3 percent from three, which leads the team. He’s playing more than 26 minutes a night. He had a team-high 20 points in UCLA’s win over Ohio State. He had 13 points and four assists in the first half of the win at Kentucky, his play changing the course of the game.

It works because of his versatility. He can replace any of Lonzo Ball, Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton and do what they do. He is a point guard by trade, but he’s also capable of playing off the ball as a shooter and can score when he puts the ball on the floor. He’s also a very good on-ball defender, which isn’t necessarily the case for the rest of UCLA’s perimeter. He’s clearly not this team’s MVP, but the Bruins would not be where they are right now without him.

Not just because of his skill set.

But because he embraced the “demotion” of coming off the bench.

4. Can Notre Dame close out games?: Two Saturdays in a row now we’ve seen the Fighting Irish jump out to big first half leads against two of the best teams in the country, and two Saturdays in a row we’ve seen them give those leads right back. The Irish blew an 11-point first half lead against Villanova two weeks ago, following that up by losing to Purdue after holding a 14 point lead at the break.

Point guard Matt Farrell, who has starred in both of those games, was blunt when he asked what happened.

“I think it’s just toughness,” he said. “This is two times now we’ve had double-digit leads and it’s come down to defensive rebounding and we haven’t done that. That’s just toughness.”

“I feel like we got comfortable at halftime just like we did in the Villanova game. We can’t get comfortable, especially if we’re up by 15, we gotta make that jump, extend the lead. It’s all about toughness and winning close games.”

The Irish watched Josh Hart put together the best performance we saw this season pre-Malik Monk. They then let Caleb Swanigan get loose against them on Saturday. On a team without much proven size and with a star big man that tops out at about 6-foot-6 on a good day, it’s worth wondering whether Notre Dame has the physicality inside to be able to handle games against teams like that.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - DECEMBER 17: Matt Farrell #5 of Notre Dame shoots the ball during the game against the Purdue Boiermakers in the Crossroads Classic at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on December 17, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Matt Farrell Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

5. The Big East is as good as it has been since the split: I think that this is the best that we’ve seen the Big East since it split off from the AAC. Villanova, the reigning national champs, are a threat to repeat. Creighton is still undefeated and find themselves ranked in the top 15. The Bluejays have usurped Xavier’s title as Villanova’s biggest threat in the league, although that may change when Myles Davis is allowed to play again. Then there’s Butler, who is the proud owner of the best résumé in the conference, with wins against Indiana, Arizona, Cincinnati, Northwestern and at Utah.

There is a valid argument to make that that top four may actually be better than the top four teams in the ACC.

There also appears to be more depth in the conference than in recent years. Seton Hall is a tough, veteran group that landed a brand-name win last week, handing South Carolina their first loss of the season. Providence is 9-2 on the year with a win over Rhode Island. Georgetown had some struggles early on in the year but just won at Syracuse over the weekend. Marquette probably isn’t looking at a tournament trip this season, but they certainly aren’t going to be pushovers this year. DePaul is DePaul and St. John’s is a tire fire, but overall, there is a lot to like about the league this season.