It’s the season of giving, but Carolina basketball fans have been receiving plenty recently. Over the past six years, the Tar Heels have won three ACC regular-season titles, a conference tournament championship and a national championship. During that span, they have made the Sweet Sixteen four times and the Final Four twice.
No other college basketball program can claim the kind of success UNC has enjoyed. Their continuous excellence has been fueled by all types of players – forwards, guards, upperclassmen, freshmen, first-round draft picks, undrafted players and everyone in between. Each of them offered something unique and valuable. With Christmas right around the corner, let’s appreciate the trademark moves Carolina basketball players have given us. Let’s re-unwrap eight gifts from UNC players that have kept on giving.
Tyler Zeller’s baby hook
Tyler Zeller was the prototypical UNC big man. He ran the floor well in transition, rebounded efficiently and scored with his back to the basket. His most effective move in the paint? A baby hook shot that was borderline unstoppable. As a seven-footer, Zeller could establish deep position and seal off his man with ease. Once he got the ball, Zeller would feel the defender behind him and make his move.
If he didn’t like what he felt, Zeller could kick it out to P.J. Hairston, Reggie Bullock or Harrison Barnes for an open three. But when he took it himself, the Indiana native would turn around quickly and hoist a quick hook shot. With his length and dexterity, the move made him a dominant low-post scorer. Zeller averaged 16.1 points per game during the 2012 Elite Eight season en route to becoming the ACC Player of the Year.
Justin Jackson’s floater
The first thought associated with Justin Jackson will always be as a national champion. Close by, though, will be images of him gliding through the lane to put up his patented floater. Jackson made a tremendous leap from his sophomore to junior season. In his last year of school, he was the ACC Player of the Year and an All-American while leading the Tar Heels to a redemptive title. His key to his success? An unstoppable floater.
Even though he gained significant bulk in his last offseason of college, Jackson still possessed a slender frame. His method to overcome it was a floater that would fall from the rafters straight through the net. The unique move helped him become a first-round pick in the 2017 NBA Draft and a place in the Dean Dome rafters among fellow UNC greats.
Brice Johnson’s baseline spin
With all due respect to high-flying J.P. Tokoto and sharpshooting Justin Jackson, Brice Johnson was the most exciting UNC player over the last six years. The 6-10 forward was electrifying with his play and emotion on the court. Johnson’s powerful slams and ensuing screams were a common theme throughout his senior year and Carolina’s run to the championship.
Those thunderous throw downs happened frequently thanks to a baseline spin that Johnson developed late in his career. Thanks to a smooth jumper and a wide frame, the All-American benefitted from overcommitted defenders that pressed up on him in the paint. Johnson would feel the pressure and quickly spin baseline for a dunk or reverse layup. His final year ended in heartbreak, but that move earned him national recognition and selection as a first-round draft pick.
Marcus Paige’s transition 3
Roy Williams has always pushed an up-tempo offense heavy on transition scoring. The bigs are taught to run the floor for trailing dunks, while the guards specialize in knocking down three-pointers on the go. One of the best backcourt players at doing that was Marcus Paige. The guard from Iowa left UNC as the program’s all-time leading three-point shooter, a record he set with a transition 3 against Texas in his senior year.
Paige played with talented big men throughout his career, from Johnson to Isaiah Hicks to Kennedy Meeks. Those forwards were proficient at rebounding and finding their outlets quickly to spark the transition. With Joel Berry II playing point guard, Paige could run the floor and find an open spot on the three-point line. His smooth shot could then be uncorked to splash a 3 before defenders found him. It’s only fitting that Paige’s last shot as a Tar Heel was a cold-blooded three in the championship game.
Kendall Marshall’s court vision
In an era where college basketball puts an increasing emphasis on the scoring ability of guards, Kendall Marshall was a blast from the past. Marshall was an assist-first point guard who was always looking to feed his big men. The Virginian developed a three-point shot during his career at UNC, but his primary focus was always on distribution.
Marshall averaged an incredible 9.8 assists per game in his last year at Carolina, which was good for second in the country and a full 2 assists more than the next-best major conference player. In that year, his sophomore season, Marshall set the ACC single-season assist record at 311. His court vision earned him the Bob Cousy award, given to the best point guard in college basketball. Marshall retired from basketball in November.
Kennedy Meeks’ offensive rebounding
North Carolina’s 2017 NCAA Championship team may be remembered for Jackson or Berry II or Hicks, but make no mistake about it: UNC wouldn’t have won the title without Meeks. The forward from Charlotte might be one of the best offensive rebounders in college basketball history. Meeks wasn’t particularly tall (6’10) or athletic, but he had a knack for collecting his teammates’ misses.
Meeks’ prowess on the offensive glass was particularly noticeable in postseason play, as he broke the school record for rebounds in the NCAA Tournament. Meeks’ tip-in off a Berry II miss in the second round against Arkansas gave UNC a three-point lead they wouldn’t relinquish. And in the national semifinal against Oregon, his rebound of a Berry II free-throw miss sealed the game. Luke Maye’s game winner against Kentucky and Berry’s heroics against Gonzaga may be remembered more, but Meeks’ rebounds were just as crucial.
John Henson’s blocks
Much like Meeks, John Henson played with a forward who overshadowed him in Tyler Zeller. Zeller collected the national recognition and hardware, but Henson quietly dominated beside him. Henson never became a dominant low-post scorer, but he was a monster on defense. At 6-10, Henson was a lanky big man with great shot-blocking instincts.
The Floridian won ACC Defensive Player of the Year honors in his junior year, a season in which he blocked 3 shots a game. That year ended with a loss to Kansas in the Elite Eight, but many Tar Heel fans still believe that, if Marshall hadn’t broken his arm, the Heels could have gone all the way. That will never be settled. What there is no doubt about, though, is Henson’s dominance on D.
Joel Berry’s clutch gene
Now a senior, Berry II has become a deadly three-point shooter and effective driver. His penchant for stepping up in big games, though, has been his greatest gift to Carolina basketball. The guard was named Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four last season, earning his jersey a spot atop the Smith Center.
Berry averaged 19 points in the final two games of the year, punctuated by a 22-point effort in the final to lead all scorers. Before that, Berry II poured in 28 points against Duke in the regular season finale, the perennially most-important game of the year. In the national final the season before, Berry II scored 20 against Villanova, meaning he becaame the first player since Bill Walton to top the 20-point mark in consecutive national championship games.
No matter what you find in your stocking this Christmas, Carolina fans know they have been spoiled by a basketball program in the midst of a dominant six-year run. The gift behind the gifts, of course, is the ageless Roy Williams. From press conference quotables to locker room celebrations, ole Roy has made each year sweet. Happy daggum holidays.