North Carolina

UNC’s West Coast trip about more than just basketball. Here are 4 things to watch.

North Carolina coach Roy Williams directs his team against Northern Iowa on Nov. 10.
North Carolina coach Roy Williams directs his team against Northern Iowa on Nov. 10. rwillett@newsobserver.com

Greetings from Northern California, home to much natural beauty, famous bridges, incredible amounts of traffic (speaking from experience) and, late on Monday night, North Carolina’s game at Stanford. The Tar Heels will be playing their first road game of the season.

And then their West Coast trip will continue, but northward to Portland, Ore., where on Thursday (Happy early Thanksgiving), the Tar Heels will begin play in the PK80, which serves as something of an 80th birthday celebration of Nike founder Phil Knight. All told, UNC will play four games before returning home early next week.

As I wrote about here, this is a trip, though, that’s about a lot more than just basketball. Indeed, this is the first opportunity the Tar Heels will have to bond over an extended trip and everything that comes with one of those – the shared meals, the shared hotel rooms, the shared outings. It’s a lot of together time.

There will be some important on-court developments, too. Here are four worth keeping an eye on:

1. Joel Berry’s return to Joel Berry form

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North Carolina’s Joel Berry II, middle, drives to the basket against Bucknell’s Nana Foulland, middle left, on Nov. 15. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

After missing UNC’s season-opening victory against Northern Iowa, senior guard Joel Berry returned from his video-game-related broken hand and made his first shot against Bucknell. That shot was a 3-pointer from the left side and, when it went in, it seemed for a moment like Berry would make this look easy: miss a game with a hand injury, come back and start making shots like nothing ever happened.

But then he missed his next 10 attempts from the field and finished 1-for-11. The last time Berry made one, or fewer, shots from the field was last season during UNC’s 77-62 defeat at Miami, where he was 0-for-8 from the field and scored his only two points from the free throw line. Berry, who’s 6-0 and 195 pounds, simply hasn’t had many games where he’s shot like he did against Bucknell.

Afterward he said his production, though, was secondary to the fact that he was just out there and back on the court, playing. At the time of his injury, he was expected to miss UNC’s first two games, at least. He came back almost a week earlier than expected – and probably could have played in the season-opener, too, had it not been the first game of the season.

“It’s just me getting back into the groove, and that’s what they wanted me to get back out on the court tonight, to get the rust off before we go on this long trip,” Berry said.

Now that Berry has already made his season debut, his next step is to start playing like he expects to play. He’s entering the season with some individual goals – ACC Player of the Year among them – and Berry has never had much patience for struggling, anyway. The sooner he returns to form, also, the sooner the Tar Heels will realize the power of their full potential.

2. Can Sterling Manley keep it up?

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UNC’s Sterling Manley, middle, grabs an offensive rebound against Northern Iowa on Nov. 10. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

Not a bad first two games for Sterling Manley, the freshman forward who arrived at UNC ranked the 265th-best prospect in his high school class. (How’s that for these “rankings?”) Manley certainly hasn’t looked like there were 264 better high school prospects in the Class of 2017. He has played, instead, like someone who would have been among the most coveted prospects in the country.

To recap, in his first two college games Manley, who’s 6-11 and 240 pounds, has averaged 12.5 points and 11 rebounds per game. Now, granted, the competition hasn’t been especially stout, but Bucknell was an NCAA tournament team last season, and should be again, and Manley dominated the Bison inside – and in only 17 minutes.

The challenge for Manley right now is that he’s still getting used to the speed of this level of play, and he’s still getting accustomed to the endurance he needs. He’s not there yet, and he has yet to pass one of his conditioning tests, too. He won’t start until he does, not that not starting has precluded him in any way early on.

How Manley fares this week, during his first college road trip, will go a long way toward establishing the direction of his early season. If he continues to play well, and well above the expectations that surrounded him in the preseason, then all those questions that surrounded UNC in the post entering the season will continue to fade. And yet if he hits a wall, that shouldn’t lead to overreaction, either.

3. Can Luke Maye keep it up!?

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North Carolina’s Luke Maye defends Bucknell’s Stephen Brown, left, on Nov. 15. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

If the college basketball season ended today it’d be the shortest season in history – only two games long for some teams, like UNC. And if the season ended today, then junior forward Luke Maye would be in the conversation for being a first-team All-American. Certainly, he’d have to be first-team All-ACC.

Maye’s season, if one looked at the statistics, would go down among the all-time greats: 23.5 points per game, 9.5 rebounds per game, a couple of assists per game, 1.5 blocks per game. And also: 71.4 percent from behind the 3-point line. Those are Wooden Award quality numbers and, indeed, if the season ended today Maye would have to be in the running for the week-and-a-half Wooden, given to the best player in the country after a week and a half.

In a development that will not surprise you, the season does not end today. Through two games, though, Maye has provided every indication that he’ll be a force during the next four months. You probably shouldn’t expect 24 points and 10 rebounds per game but, who knows. Maye, after all, takes special pleasure in proving people wrong – as he’s continued to do early on this season.

4. How does Roy Williams continue to tinker and experiment without Cameron Johnson?

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North Carolina’s Jalek Felton, 5, congratulates teammate Cameron Johnson, middle, after Johnson sank a basket and drew a foul against UNC-G during the North Carolina Disaster Relief Jamboree on Nov. 5. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

Cameron Johnson, the transfer guard from Pitt, was expected to start for the Tar Heels. He was going to slide into that Justin Jackson-like role on the wing and, though Jackson and Johnson are very different players, Johnson possesses the skills to excel in that kind of role, especially with his perimeter shooting. But now Johnson will be out for four to six weeks while recovering from surgery to repair a torn meniscus.

It’s one of those blessing-and-a-curse kinds of situations, because ideally Johnson would use a long road trip like this as a chance to find his place – both on the court and off (he will be joining the team in Portland, so he’ll be able to spend some time on the road with the Tar Heels, at least). On the court, Johnson’s absence does allow an opportunity to experiment.

Sophomore guard Brandon Robinson, if he’s healthy (he missed UNC’s victory against Bucknell) stands to be the biggest benefactor of Johnson’s absence. Andrew Platek, the freshman guard, played 14 minutes against Bucknell, and he’ll probably continue to receive more of an opportunity while Johnson is out, as well.

Andrew Carter: 919-829-8944, @_andrewcarter

UNC at Stanford

When: 11:30 p.m. Monday

Where: Stanford, Calif.

TV: ESPN2

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