The North Carolina Tar Heels held their Media Day for the 2016-17 men’s basketball season this week. Coach Roy Williams held a press conference with the media to discuss UNC’s prospects for the new season.
Recovery After Knee Surgery
Coach Roy Williams said his recovery after knee surgery was going “really well” and that after six practices he “[hasn’t] hurt anything like I did last year.” His knee surgeries have made basketball practice “fun” again after last year being the first time in his coaching career he has needed to sit periodically during practice. Two of Williams’ main exercise activities outside of basketball practice are golf and walking around campus. He went back to golfing in August, and is only up to two-and-a-half miles on his daily walk, rather than his normal five or six, but he is progressing towards that level.
After the Loss in the NCAA Championship
Coach Williams said that he “[goes] through a grieving process every year. ” However, the last-second loss to Villanova in the championship game was different:
Last year was a little different because you get so close and you have a kid that makes the shot that would have gone down as may be the most famous shot in Carolina history if we got into overtime and won.
Coach Williams said that he “[has] not watched the game, may never.” He did see the final shot and was “pleased” with how his team guarded the shot and conceded that sometimes “you just have to congratulate the other team.” However, there was satisfaction because “351 teams start playing and you were one of the last two to play.” Williams said that the team “reached all of their goals except one, and that’s a pretty good year.”
Questions Going into the 2016-17 Season
Coach Williams described Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige as the two best players on the team last year. Williams used a golf reference to describe the loss of those two players, equating the departures of Johnson and Paige to the U.S. Ryder Cup team losing Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus:
When they lost Arnold and Jack, that wasn’t just two guys. Brice and Marcus are not just two bodies for us; they were our two best players. The best defender, the best outside scorer, the best inside scorer, the best rebounder, the guy that dominated inside around the rim on the defensive end.
Carolina will need to figure out how to replace Johnson’s rebounding and Paige’s leadership.
It will be difficult to replace Brice Johnson’s rebounding ability. According to Williams, Johnson’s “rebounding and blocked shots perhaps were even more important” than his scoring last year. He points to Isaiah Hicks, Kennedy Meeks, Luke Maye, and Tony Bradley as having to “really step up and do some better things.” Bradley will have the opportunity “to give us some of those enthusiastic young moments where he can produce against big time teams.” These players, especially Hicks and Meeks, will need to adjust from having the focus of opposing defenses on Johnson to them.
Marcus Paige “led by example” no matter if he was the top player or not. Williams gave an anecdote about how Paige a mistake on the court and took responsibility immediately, without making excuses or having a bad attitude. Williams pointed to Paige’s top leadership quality as “being able to handle tough situations.” His toughness was contagious for the team for last year, and there are seniors and juniors this year that share that same brand of strength. Williams pointed to Joel Berry II as filling in the leadership void left by Paige due to his composed play during tournament time.
Coach Williams said that the players in the first week “really had a good attitude” and “done some nice things.” Williams has been experimenting with different lineups, rotating Berry, Theo Pinson, Kenny Williams Jr., and Seventh Woods around in the back court. He said that “all of them will have a chance to play for us.” A goal for this team is to, once again, have a balanced lineup with Williams hoping that “we have six or seven guys average around double figures.”
On Meeks, Williams said he is playing “good, not great” right now. Meeks has continuously worked to improve his body during his time at UNC. Williams said he needs to continue to work on being “more explosive” with rebounding and scoring, and with his “wonderful hands” his has the potential to have even more “big time games” this year.
Hicks turned down the chance to test the NBA Draft waters last year and Coach Williams was surprised. Williams had already completed the paperwork and just needed Hicks’ signature. Hicks declined, saying that he was “100 percent sure” he wanted to stay at Carolina and earn his degree. Going into this season, Williams said Hicks needs to be the “second guy to jump” on the defensive end, and not commit “silly fouls.” Williams wanted to play him more last year, but was unable to due to foul trouble. This year, Williams wants him “in the game in the start and the end.”
Williams said that Justin Jackson’s NBA Draft and Combine experience was “good for him,” stating that “it’s okay to get as much information as you can.” After withdrawing from the draft, Coach Williams and Jackson “sat down and we talked about some things that were really important and I think he’s focused on those.” Some of those goals were consistency on his outside shot, being more aggressive getting to the basket, getting to the free throw line, and, along with Pinson, getting more rebounds.
On Pinson, Williams said the he has a “tremendous attitude” and that he’s a “wonderful kid that I really enjoy coaching and I think he’s really worked hard, particularly on his shot; much more so than he has anything in the past.”
Williams said that Berry “just got to keep doing what he’s doing right now.” Berry was arguably Carolina’s best player during the ACC and NCAA Tournaments last year, and Williams credits this to his aggressiveness on offense. He wants him to continue that this year.
On the new freshman class, Williams said it was hard to determine who and how much they would play, but suspected Bradley is “going to be able to help us more” due to depth issues in the front court. Williams notes that because of the lack of depth with big men, UNC will “probably go small a little more often than we did last year.” As with the other freshmen, Woods was dealing with some injuries during the summer and Brandon Robinson “had been shooting the ball pretty well.”
Aaron Rohlman, a 6-6 junior from Gastonia, NC, made the team. A walk-on and former member of the J.V. squad, Williams said, “the guys were very happy for him” when it was announced he made the roster.
On National Anthem Protests
Coach Williams discussed recent protests at sporting events during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner. He admitted that “at first, it made me very angry.” Williams continued:
[Colin Kaepernick] explained himself more and I listened better. He wasn’t saying this was a bad country; he said we’ve got, not just one particular problem, but one particular problem he was taking a stance on, and I think he’s correct.
Williams said he brought the team together to discuss the issues and receive their thoughts and feelings. Williams went on to say:
Then I told them, I said, ‘Tell me, the only thing I want you to do is, I’ll be with you, I may disagree, but I’ll be with you. Don’t surprise me.’ I was very pleased that the first [home football] game after that, all my guys stood together in the end zone and did it together. But I would. If somebody came in and said, ‘Coach I want to do this,’ I would try to understand what he’s saying and give him my point of view and then hopefully a decision would be made.
He said that we “have a marvelous, marvelous place to live, we have some problems that are very much right out in front of us, so I’ve softened my stance a great deal on Kaepernick, especially after talking to the Navy SEAL." Williams said that he’s “about as patriotic as anybody can possibly be, but it’s a very important issue right now.”