Luke Maye is one of the more interesting players in the Roy Williams era in terms of how he got to where he ended up by the time he finished his college career. Considering that across the SB Nation network this week focuses on underdogs, it’s really hard to think of many in Carolina history that had quite the impact that Maye had. It’s because of this that I have to wonder: is Luke Maye the greatest underdog in Carolina basketball history?
It’s certainly a fair question to ask, especially considering the fact that UNC has always had their pick of some talented players. The pool of underdogs in the program isn’t the deepest, as Carolina has always had strong recruiting classes, but even if it were Maye’s story is a tough one to top. I’m sure most of us know his story, but let’s break it down anyway so that we can paint the picture of how his career took off during his four years with the program.
Luke Maye committed to the Tar Heels back in 2015, with Kenny Williams being the only other commit to join him in Chapel Hill largely thanks to the NCAA investigation causing recruiting issues. Maye was a three-star high school prospect, and was ranked as the 155th best player in the country. Oh, and did I forget to mention that he was recruited as a walk-on? How could I have forgotten that part. The 2015 class joined a team that had players like Joel Berry, Justin Jackson, Brice Johnson, Marcus Paige, Kennedy Meeks, and Isaiah Hicks. The depth in the front court meant that Maye’s career would get off to a slow start, and in all honesty sometimes it was easy to forget that he was on the roster.
The North Carolina native finished his freshman year averaging 1.2 points and 1.7 points a game, and also averaged 5.4 minutes of action. He also shot at a 41.2% clip, which needless to say isn’t anything to get excited about. Thankfully the team didn’t have to rely on him during that season, as Brice Johnson helped UNC coast to the Final Four, and eventually the national championship game against Villanova. We all know what happened in Houston, and no, we don’t need to talk about it again. All we need to know is that it was Brice Johnson’s final game, and suddenly things looked a little better in regards to Maye’s playing time.
The 2016-17 Tar Heels were on a mission for redemption following what happened in Houston, and Luke Maye did what he could to help the team achieve just that. Things were a little better for him during his sophomore campaign, though his numbers weren’t anything that jumped off the page at you. The way we discuss that season for Luke Maye is nothing short of amazing considering he averaged 5.5 points and 3.9 rebounds per game, and we all know the reason why. In the Elite Eight game of the NCAA Tournament, Malik Monk had just drained another one of his outrageous three-pointers to tie the game 73-73 with 7.3 seconds left. The Heels inbound the ball to Theo Pinson, and Pinson drives the ball down the court to find an open Luke Maye, who’s already scored 15 points this game and is on his way to earning a Most Outstanding Player award for the region. He drains the game-winner, and Kentucky once again wallows in the pit of despair thanks to a team in North Carolina.
Oh, and if you thought I wasn’t going to share the video of the sequence with Titanic music, I am very disappointed in you.
What’s amazing about Luke Maye’s heroics in the Elite Eight is that he didn’t even need to score a single point for the Heels to win the national championship game against Gonzaga. In fact, he literally didn’t score a single point. Do we remember this as fans? Not at all, and if someone does remember, it’s easy to follow up the statement with “But he drilled the shot against Kentucky to get us to the Final Four”. In the end, that’s all that matters, right?
During his junior and senior seasons, Luke Maye was a completely different player. As a junior Maye finished the season averaging 16.9 points and 10.1 rebounds per game, and was a huge focal point for a team that lost big men Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks, and Tony Bradley to the NBA. He also finished the regular season first-team All-ACC and also was the ACC’s Most Improved Player. UNC ended up losing to Texas A&M in the NCAA Tournament, and that’s when Roy Williams loaded up the team for one last go with Maye.
With Coby White, Nassir Little, and Leaky Black making their arrivals, the Tar Heels had a solid to strong regular season. Luke Maye specifically finished things out averaging 14.9 points and 10.5 rebounds per game, and earned second-team All-ACC honors at the end of the regular season. UNC also swept Duke in the regular season, and got all the way to the ACC championship game before barely losing to the Blue Devils. They’d move on to make it out of the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament before losing the Nassir Little/Cameron Johnson flu game against Auburn in Kansas City. Luke Maye’s time with the team was over, and he ended up going undrafted to the Milwaukee Bucks following the NBA Draft.
As a kid that didn’t even know if he’d have a scholarship before committing to the Tar Heels, Luke Maye found a way to climb the ladder at UNC to become a player that fans in our lifetime will remember forever. Sure, the shot against Kentucky may have been the peak of his career if we look at it from a championship standpoint, but his junior and senior seasons were more impressive than I think any of us thought he was capable of in 2015. It’s because of this that I believe that Luke Maye just may be the greatest underdog in Carolina basketball history.
What do you think? Is there a former Tar Heel that may be more worthy of this honor? Do you think recency bias has clouded my judgment, or was the North Carolina native’s “started from the bottom” story enough to make this a worthy honor? Let us know in the comments below.