For at least the past decade or so, when the Tar Heel basketball team has been one of the best in the country, it has been due to a potent mix of experienced seniors, young and athletic bench players, and terrific team chemistry on both ends. We saw it last year, and there are signs of this season’s team beginning to gel in the same way. Partly, this is because the team now has a legitimate duo, much like great teams in seasons past.
While many predicted the duo of Joel Berry II and Isaiah Hicks to dominate much the way Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson had previously done, it has been Berry II and Justin Jackson so far, with both taking their already impressive non-conference performances to even greater heights in ACC play. But can they really replicate the dominance and consistency of the last few unbelievable duos to play in Chapel Hill?
Well, Berry II and Jackson still have a long way to go to be named alongside the terrifying pair of Ty Lawson and Tyler Hansbrough. The two helped the Tar Heels win a national title back in 2009, and are generally regarded as two of the best players to ever don the Carolina blue.
Interestingly, both had their own ACC Player of the Year seasons, with Lawson’s coming during the championship year. For three years, though, these two wreaked havoc. Hansbrough averaged over 18 points per game in all four years, including 22.6 rebounds during his junior Player of the Year season. He never dipped below 7.8 rebounds per game and even averaged a career-high 10.2 his third year. Simply, Hansbrough might just be the greatest Tar Heel ever.
Then add Ty Lawson to the mix and it becomes even clearer why this team won a championship and is oft regarded as one of the best in this century. During Lawson’s sensational third season, he averaged 16.6 points, 6.6 assists and 2.1 steals. He shot a blazing 53.2 percent from the field and 47.2 percent from deep. Rarely did two players complement each other, and Coach Roy Williams’ system, so well.
Just last year, Paige and Johnson both had terrific senior years—especially Johnson, who was arguably the best big man in the country—and helped lead the team to a national championship appearance. We all know how that ended, but let’s just say these two have etched their names into Tar Heel history, as well as placed their jerseys in the rafters of the Dean Dome.
So now we come to the next iteration of terrible twosome for the Heels in Berry II and Jackson. For what it’s worth, it is a little surprising that it’s two wing players and not a big man stepping in for Jackson. That could say something about the play of Hicks and Kennedy Meeks, but don’t ignore the fact that Jackson is having one of the best wing seasons ever under Williams.
Jackson is scoring at a career-high clip of 17.9 points and rebounding a strong 4.8 boards per game. Still, the biggest change in his game has been his three-point shooting. While he has always been versatile and dynamic on both ends, his lack of a consistent outside shot has crippled UNC at times. He used to hover around 30 percent from deep. Now? He’s shooting a hair over 40 percent and making over two per game. If that keeps up, Carolina will be difficult to beat in March.
Berry II is the guy we expected this from and, although the expectations were sky high, he has more than lived up to it. Berry II is at career highs across the board: 16.2 points, 4.4 assists, and 3.7 rebounds. Berry II’s shooting touch, much like his counterpart, has improved immensely, too. It’s clear that he just has so much more confidence in his third year, now hitting 48.9 percent from the field, 42.7 percent from deep and 91.2 percent from the foul line
Berry II and Jackson are beginning to attain the statistics and weekly performances to have their name mentioned amongst the best duos in college basketball right now. What determines if they can enter Tar Heel folklore like Lawson & Hansbrough and Paige & Johnson is still up in the air but, so far, they’ve been tremendous in the ACC. With less experience and weaker depth, it might be Berry II and Jackson having unbelievable years side-by-side to get the Heels back to the Final Four.