Joel Berry II might not be the MVP of this North Carolina basketball team, but I think he's the MEP.
That would be “Most Essential Player,” and that is what Berry is for a Tar Heels squad that often takes its cues from its point guard. When Berry plays well, life is good for those who care about Carolina blue. When he plays poorly, as he did in the ACC tournament against Duke, life is often bad for North Carolina.
Berry's Tar Heels, seeded No. 1 in the South Region, will open the NCAA tournament at about 4 p.m. Friday against No. 16 Texas Southern. North Carolina will need to win that game and five more in a row for the season not to be a crushing disappointment for Berry, who felt the cruelty of second place a year ago in this tournament as vividly as anyone.
He remembers trudging off the hardwood after Villanova's Kris Jenkins hit a buzzer-beater to edge the Tar Heels in the 2016 instant classic of an NCAA final. As Villanova’s celebration began, North Carolina had to find its way to its locker room and an offseason full of questions.
“Walking off the court, confetti falling on us – yeah, I can still feel that,” Berry said Thursday. “I don't want to have that feeling come upon me again.”
So this season is all about redemption and has been since the beginning. The North Carolina players text each other as a group, and the group name is “Redemption.”
“We're very excited,” Berry said. “We've been waiting on this moment since we walked off the floor last year.”
It might be Berry's last shot at a title, too. Although only a junior, many expect him to turn pro following this season.
“I think about it,” Berry said. “But I'll just leave that to the end of the season. If I do come back, if I don't come back – I'm giving it my all regardless.”
Wins, losses and Berry
In the 25 wins in which he has played for North Carolina (27-7) this season, Berry has shot 49 percent. In the seven losses, he shot 33.8 percent. Most recently, against Duke in the ACC tournament, he sat out 10 straight minutes with foul trouble in the second half (ultimately, coach Roy Williams sat him down too long, but that's another story).
In those 10 Berry-less minutes, the Tar Heels went from eight points ahead to seven points behind. It was another example of why Berry is indispensable to North Carolina. I would submit that the Tar Heels can survive a bad game from forward Justin Jackson, the ACC Player of the Year, more easily than they can survive one from Berry. The Tar Heels in this NCAA tournament will go as far as Berry can take them.
Said Berry: “I try not to get caught up in ‘I have to play well for this team to excel.’ There are four other guys out there on the court.”
True, but there is only one starting point guard, as Williams pointed out Thursday. Said Williams of Berry: “He sets the line of our defense. He's a tremendous outside shooter. He pushes the pace. He does all those kind of things. And when it's not going well for him, it is a big loss.”
‘You have no choice but to think about it’
Berry remembers the final moments of last year’s Villanova game like it was yesterday. It's hard not to, because the replays run on sports shows so often. He believes the double-clutch circus shot Tar Heels guard Marcus Paige hit to tie the game was one of the “greatest shots I have ever seen” – even better than Michael Jordan's shot to win the 1982 national title, according to Berry.
“Jordan's shot was pretty good, but his (Paige's) shot was more something I could relate to because I was right there watching,” Berry said. “And seeing him in that awkward position shooting the ball – I mean, when do you ever practice shooting a shot like that?”
But then came Jenkins' shot, which trumped Paige’s and won the title.
“I try not to watch the shot but you look on ESPN, anywhere in America, that shot comes up every time,” Berry said. “You want to get away from it but you can't, so you have no choice but to think about it.”
Berry has had an excellent season by most measures. He is one of five finalists for the Bob Cousy Award, given to the nation's best point guard. He’s North Carolina second-leading scorer (14.8 points) and leads the team in assists, steals, 3-point percentage and free-throw percentage. But it won't end well for him unless he wins the national championship, and that's a pretty difficult goal. Still, Berry said he feels confident the Tar Heels can do it and in the process remove the hurt from a season ago.
“You're only as good as your last headline,” Berry said. “And if we could headline ‘North Carolina, national champions,’ that could make all that pain go away.”