By Andrew Kahn
North Carolina was settling for three-point attempts at the start of its Final Four game against Syracuse. This was a bad game plan for several reasons: the Heels’ strength is inside; their outside shooting is inconsistent; Syracuse defends the three very well. Carolina missed its first 12 outside attempts and was tied with eight minutes left in the first half. That’s when Joel Berry II, who had badly missed his first two threes in the cavernous NRG Stadium, started driving the ball into the paint, creating for himself and his teammates. It shook the Tar Heels out of an offensive funk and propelled them to tonight’s national championship game.
“Joel did a great job of looking in, finding everybody open shots,” forward Brice Johnson said in the postgame press conference. “He played some terrific minutes in the first half.”
Steady and efficient, if not flashy, Berry could be a key tonight against Villanova. The sophomore point guard has recorded 18 assists and just one turnover in his last two games. When Marcus Paige missed the first six games of the season, Berry assumed the starting point guard role and has remained there, with Paige sliding over to the two-guard. The 6-foot Berry is a strong perimeter defender and Carolina’s best three-point shooter at 36.8 percent.
His outside shooting helped him earn the MVP of the ACC Tournament, but he’s gone cold in the Big Dance. In Carolina’s five Tournament games, he’s made just five of 23 (22 percent) outside attempts. But he’s shot 20-of-29 (69 percent) from inside the arc. Combined with his help on the boards (21 rebounds) and strong assist-to-turnover ratio, Berry’s play has been critical to Carolina’s run.
Reviewing tape from his last two games, many of Berry’s assists have come from simply passing to the open man. The ball does not stick in Berry’s hands. But he’ll also push the ball at opportune times, even after made baskets, and is aggressive in the half court, as he was against Syracuse. Here’s a drive and nifty slip pass to a teammate for a dunk late in the first half of that game:
Berry said in the press conference after that he tried to use pass fakes to shift the defense and create driving lanes. “Our big men did a great job of showing their hands on the baseline… penetration made the big man in the middle step up and we were able to get it on the baseline.”
Should Villanova’s defenders stick to Carolina’s talented bigs, Berry has proven he can finish at the rim. As for finding his jumper, having just played in Houston’s stadium can’t hurt. When Berry takes the ball out under Villanova’s basket, look for the Heels to run a simple play that frees him up for a corner three. They deployed it twice in the first half of the regional final against Notre Dame; Berry made one and another went in and out. North Carolina has the No. 1 offense in the country, per KenPom, without relying on the three (just 26 percent of their field goal attempts are threes, the second-lowest rate in the country among power conference teams, and they make just 31.9 percent). But Berry or Paige or Justin Jackson hitting a few from deep would certainly give Carolina a huge boost.
Andrew Kahn is a regular contributor to CBS Local who also writes for Newsday and The Wall Street Journal. He writes about college basketball and other sports at andrewjkahn.com and you can find his Scoop and Score podcast on iTunes. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @AndrewKahn.