A little more than two years ago in Kansas City, North Carolina found itself in the final minutes of a closer-than-anticipated game against Kansas State. The Wildcats were not expected to be especially competitive that season, and they went on to finish 5-13 in the Big 12. The Tar Heels, meanwhile, began that season ranked No. 1, and they reached the national championship game.
Yet with 3 ½ minutes remaining that late-November night, Kansas State led UNC by five, and the prospect of a considerable upset tantalized a partisan crowd of Kansas State supporters whose appreciation of a Wildcats victory might only be surpassed by the sight of a Roy Williams defeat. Williams, after all, regularly dealt Kansas State torture during his years at Kansas.
And so it was again in the final minutes of that game. During a timeout with 3 ½ minutes to play, Williams, the UNC coach, drew up a play for Joel Berry, then a sophomore guard who had been laboring through a poor shooting night. Berry at that point had missed all four of his 3-point attempts. No matter, Williams thought.
“My own thinking (was) he had stunk it up so bad I thought it was about time he’d make a play,” Williams said that night.
The play Williams designed called for Berry to use two screens to free himself in the corner in front of the UNC bench. He’d receive a pass there and, if open, attempt a shot. It worked. Berry found himself open in the corner and released a 3-point attempt that fell through. It cut the Wildcats’ lead to two and helped shift the game’s momentum. UNC closed on a 21-3 run and finished with an 80-70 victory.
Berry’s shot is memorable for a couple of reasons. For one, the shot was one of the most important that he made early in his college years, and it helped inspire his confidence. Second, he had the opportunity to take the shot in large part because Marcus Paige, the All-American senior guard, was unavailable to do so. Paige at the time was still recovering from a broken bone in his right hand.
Two years later, Berry is now UNC’s senior point guard, an All-American candidate just like Paige was. And like Paige then, Berry is now recovering from a broken bone in his right hand. The injury is expected him to keep him out of action for approximately four weeks, which means that he’ll likely miss UNC’s first two games, at least, and possibly more.
Now, like then, an injury to a point guard has created opportunities for players that otherwise would not have been there. Two years ago, Berry was the biggest benefactor of Paige’s absence, which lasted for UNC’s first six games. Now, Seventh Woods, a sophomore, and Jalek Felton, a freshman, could benefit in a similar way to how Berry did then.
The circumstances aren’t exactly similar. For one, Berry isn’t expected to miss six games. If he is indeed out for four weeks, as of Monday, he might only miss two. Second, Felton is an unproven but heralded freshman who has yet to play a college game, and though Woods has already been through a college season, he struggled last year in a way that Berry didn’t during his freshman season.
Even so, one of those players will now become UNC’s starting point guard, at least for however long Berry is out. Both Woods and Felton are unproven. Even after a full season of college basketball, Woods is still probably best known for a viral highlight video that has been watched 15 million times on YouTube. The video shows Woods as he was at 14-years-old, dunking over hapless defenders.
Felton, meanwhile, is the nephew of former UNC point guard Raymond Felton, and the younger Felton is the most heralded member of the Tar Heels’ freshman class. Williams said he might be UNC’s “most gifted” player, but the coach’s praise stopped there.
“Doesn’t understand hard work,” Williams recently said of Felton. “Doesn’t understand focus. Doesn’t understand defense. … But really gifted and if I can get him to be more focused and tougher, I think he’s got a chance to be a really good player and really help us.
“And he’s got some skills that a lot of other people don’t have.”
Based on Williams’ history of deferring to older players, regardless of talent discrepancy, there’s a strong chance that Woods will start his first college game when UNC begins the season on Nov. 10 against Northern Iowa. If Woods does start, it’d represent a dramatic leap from his role throughout last season.
During the Tar Heels’ final five NCAA tournament games, Woods played a combined 15 minutes. He did not score, or attempt a shot. The role he played in the tournament wasn’t much different from the one he played throughout conference play.
Woods, who years ago became one of the first adolescent basketball players whose highlight reel made him something of an Internet celebrity, recently acknowledged the personal toll of his freshman season. It was a season that, at times, eroded his confidence.
“It was definitely a roller coaster ride, had its ups and downs,” Woods said. “Feel like I started the season probably playing the worst basketball I’ve ever played, with turning the ball over. And once ACC play came, the game started slowing down for me.”
Woods said he experienced what a lot of freshmen experience: thoughts of inadequacy. Questions of belonging. Wondering if he’d made the right college choice, or if he should have gone somewhere else.
“I’ve definitely thought about it like that,” he said, “as if I’m not good enough to be in this program, if I should have stayed home, or if I should have went to a smaller school. Like I said, I’ve stuck to myself, had people in my circle constantly tell me I was good enough to be here.
“I just had to go out there and let the game slow down for me and not try to do too much on the court.”
Woods said Hubert Davis, the Tar Heels’ assistant coach who traveled his own difficult road early in his college years at UNC, has been instrumental in helping Woods rebuild his confidence. Davis, Woods said, “has complimented me most” about Woods’ improvement. Berry has played a role, too, in trying to boost Woods’ belief in himself.
Though Berry played a more prominent role as a freshman, he tried to comfort Woods by sharing his own stories of failure and doubt. At one point, Woods said, Berry told him that “he felt like quitting” during the more difficult moments of his freshman season. Berry overcame those moments and his legacy will be defined, in part, by his toughness – both physical and mental.
Berry always possessed those qualities. Even during his freshman season, his teammates spoke fondly of his grit. Yet it didn’t translate into consistent success on the court until his sophomore season, after the late 3-pointer that he made against Kansas State helped him blossom. Williams drew up that play that night, in part, to see how Berry would handle the moment.
“They don’t have to look, ‘OK, where’s 5? Where’s 5? He’s got to do something for us now,’” Williams said then, referencing Paige’s jersey number. “They realize that we were able to make some plays today without him.”
Now the Tar Heels might be asking themselves, with Berry’s number in mind: “Where’s 2?”
He’ll be on the bench for an undetermined length of time. In his absence, Felton will have a chance to complement his talent with the attributes he lacks, including focus and defense. And Woods will have a greater chance to develop more toughness of his own.