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UNC basketball: Joel Berry needs a running mate

Point guards who lead their team in scoring don’t often win titles. Joel Berry will need help.

NCAA Basketball: Final Four Championship Game-Gonzaga vs North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Next month North Carolina men’s basketball hosts Late Night With Roy, where they will hang their sixth NCAA championship banner (and seventh overall), celebrate last season’s accomplishments, and introduce this season’s team. Leading the way will be senior point guard Joel Berry. As the returning NCAA Final Four Most Outstanding Player, and undeniably one of the best point guards in college basketball, expectations for him will be hard to ignore. Just this week, Blue Ribbon named him as a pre-season 2nd Team All-American. Even if you think that is a modest prediction, it’s nothing to scoff at.

Berry will see his name hang in the rafters when his collegiate career concludes. Helping to rebrand the Heels and guide them out of a maddeningly frustrating time in the program’s history has already paved his way as a Tar Heel legend. How does that translate into his senior season? With a national title under his belt, will he lead the team to another deep run in March? What do the Heels need from him to have any realistic chance to return to the Final Four?

Playing with some numbers, and looking at the composition of past NCAA Champions, I came to one possible conclusion.

Joel Berry needs a running mate. A leading scorer. A guy who can shoulder the load of putting points on the board while Berry runs the team. Simply put, if Joel Berry is leaned on too heavily by the Heels and is expected to lead the offense in scoring, North Carolina’s chances to repeat are slim to none.

Perusing every national championship game all the way back to 1990, there have only been four champions whose leading scorer was a point guard. Who were those teams and their respective point guards (or players who predominantly ran the offense)? Duke’s Jay Williams in 2001, Florida’s Taurean Green in 2007, and UCONN’s Kemba Walker and Shabazz Napier in 2011 and 2014.

Breaking it down, each situation has some interesting caveats to their success.

Jay Williams averaged 21.6 ppg, but Shane Battier helped ease pressure with 19.9 ppg. Freshman guard Chris Duhon averaged 4.5 apg in 27.8 minutes to Williams’ 6.1 apg in 31.8 minutes. In other words, while Williams was one of the best college point guards we’ve ever seen, he still had plenty of help scoring AND running the team.

Florida’s Taurean Green only averaged 13.3 ppg. He was closely followed by Al Horford and Corey Brewer who each averaged 13.2 ppg. Nobody on that team averaged over four assists per game. If you want to watch a truly fun, cohesive team go back and watch those Florida teams in 2006 and 2007. Green may have led that 2007 in scoring, but he was far from a dominant scoring force.

UCONN’s Kemba Walker averaged 23.5/5.4/4.5, carried the Huskies to a 9-9 Big East record, and then went on a truly epic tear through the conference and NCAA tournament. That was aided by the fact that the Huskies, a 3-seed, were the highest seed remaining by the time the Final Four was played. VCU (11), Kentucky (8), and Butler (8) isn’t the most historically difficult semifinal slate.

Napier’s title was similar. With an 18.0/5.8/4.9 stat line, he led his Huskies to third place in the AAC. That was good for a seven seed. Then, they went on a streak that was more impressive than 2011 where they beat, in order, St. Joe’s (10), Villanova (2), Iowa State (3), Michigan State (4), Florida (1), and Kentucky (8). Sometimes a team just gets hot.

The other common denominator between Walker, Napier, and Williams? They all averaged over 4.0 assists per game in those seasons. Joel Berry’s career high is 3.8 apg in his sophomore year. Some of that can be explained by playing in the same backcourt as Marcus Paige, or acknowledging that last season’s team was uncommonly unselfish. In 2016-17, five players—Nate Britt, Kenny Williams, Theo Pinson, Joel Berry, and Justin Jackson—averaged a combined 14.7 assists per game between them. Regardless, barring significant minutes for Seventh Woods or Jalek Felton at the point, one has to hope that his facilitation also improves.

History is not kind to college teams that depend upon their point guard to be their main scoring option. Heels fans saw this most recently when Marcus Paige ran the team. When your point guard hunts his shot or is the team’s best/only source of offense, the offense gets stagnant. Dry spells become more common. Other players stop and watch the ball handler. Your team becomes easier for opposing teams to defend, because the point guard is now a one-stop-shop for offensive output. Or, the point guard is allowed to score at will as the other four players are locked down.

Want an example? Marcus Paige is the only point guard who has ever led a Roy Williams’ coached team in scoring, which he did in 2015. Thanks to a stalled offense and 19-7 Badger run in the second half, Wisconsin ended North Carolina’s season in the Sweet 16. That loss was not Paige’s fault, but that is small representation of what often happens when your team does not have balance.

Even more recently, last March Frank Mason’s Kansas team fell short against Oregon. Mason led his team with 20.9 ppg before their offense sputtered against the Ducks in the Elite 8. Headed into this season, you’re likely to see plenty of fans and pundits comparing Joel Berry to Mason, as if it is some sort of senior season roadmap to follow. It’s humbling to be mentioned with the most recent NCAA Player of the Year, and an Elite 8 is certainly a successful season, but after two straight Final Fours we all know this team wants to make it three in a row.

Ray Felton had Sean May and some other guy. Ty Lawson benefitted from Tyler Hansbrough and Wayne Ellington. Last season Berry and Justin Jackson were able to pick each other up when the other had an off night. The Final Four was the perfect example of that when Berry struggled against Oregon and Jackson struggled against Gonzaga.

This season, there are no clear answers. Just unknowns, hope, and optimism. Will Theo stay healthy and find a niche as an inside-out slasher? Is Cameron Johnson as good as his numbers at Pittsburgh suggest? Can Kenny Williams make a Justin Jackson-type of junior leap? Hell, can Joel Berry stay healthy?

Berry will receive preseason recognition. He will be a candidate for numerous awards on the conference and national level. All of that is warranted and deserved. Certainly UNC isn’t doomed if Berry is the offensive and/or scoring focal point. They will still make the tournament and challenge for the ACC title – both regular season and tournament.

However, he cannot do it all himself. If UNC is going to have a realistic chance of returning to the Final Four, he needs a running mate to ease his burdens.