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Joel Berry is exactly what the Tar Heels were missing

In his return to the court for the Heels, the point guard dramatically elevated his teammates’ play.

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Kentucky Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

In Joel Berry’s absence, UNC played two games at home against teams that could be considered anywhere from “decent” to “not very good.” Both games were hotly contested, and UNC, which had once looked like one of the nation’s best teams, had to struggle to win both games. The starting big men for UNC, Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks, particularly struggled, averaging a combined 18.5 points and 9.5 rebounds, which were about 7 points and 5 rebounds below their combined average.

The team as a whole scored 83 and 73 points in those games, after having averaged about 90 points a game prior to that. Their intensity was down, their offense struggled, and they looked like an altogether mediocre team, not the seemingly Phoenix-bound one we had all seen in Maui. The inevitable questions were raised all over the internet: Was UNC missing more than just Joel Berry? Had the magic just been ephemeral? Had the start to the season been a total mirage?

Fast forward to Berry’s return to the court, in UNC’s biggest game of the non-conference schedule, and it’s obvious that the answer to all of those questions is a fairly resounding “no.” With Berry operating the point, even though he may not have totally been up to game speed yet, the issues that had been observed were almost completely eliminated. I’m not going to be hyperbolic and call a loss UNC’s best game of the season (that’s still the Wisconsin game as far as I’m concerned), but it did resemble late March or April competition more so than it did a pre-Christmas game. The team went from needing a last-second play to beat one of the worst teams in the SEC to being one or two plays away from beating one of the best teams in the country, and the only thing that changed was Berry.

Berry made his impact known immediately, slicing to the rim in a way we’ve all missed. His first shot was blocked, but after that, he figured out the Kentucky defense. He continued slicing through in transition with his incredible combination of speed and strength, usually finishing or at least cutting the Kentucky defense into disarray, making sure that Carolina was dictating the flow of the Carolina offense, which had been in short supply during the games that he sat out. No more wild charges into the paint, no more dribbling ourselves into the corner, Berry showed us all what a Carolina point guard is supposed to do, and did so superbly.

In addition, his ice-cold demeanor lifted the entire team to stay calm under pressure. He made big shot after big shot throughout the second half, and through this, gave his teammates confidence. Justin Jackson stepped up to hit a huge three to take the lead, and after it had been tied, Isaiah Hicks and Jackson teamed up for a beautiful play to take the lead again. Having a leader who leads by example in high-pressure situations helps the entire team perform. And while UNC had been in a high-pressure situation a week ago, that was against a much less talented team, where once the team focused, they were able to take over. Against Kentucky, they had to hit another gear to have a fighting chance, and Berry’s leadership spurred them into it.

While Berry had an excellent statistical game (23 points, 9/15 (3/5 3PT) FG, 2/2 FT, 5 rebounds, 7 assists to 3 turnovers), it will get lost in the midst of conversation about Kentucky’s Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox, as well as his teammate Justin Jackson. Much more important is how UNC was able to score 100 points against KenPom’s 6th best defensive team in the nation, and it was because they finally had their point guard back and were able to play the kind of basketball that made us such fans of this program in the first place. UNC raised some questions, but those have been quieted. Even after a loss, this team looks much more ready to make a deep run in March than it did after wins a week ago.

Oh, and the team’s still missing a starter. How’s that for potential?