CHAPEL HILL — What’s this about North Carolina having big (man) issues this season?
That may be the case. But that clearly wasn’t a problem in the No. 9 Tar Heels’ 86–69 opening-night victory over Northern Iowa on Friday night, led by a breakout performance from junior Luke Maye.
A lot of people around the country will be surprised to see that Maye put up career-highs in points (26), field goals (11), field goals attempted (16) and minutes (28) to notch his second career double-double with 10 rebounds and lead UNC in scoring for the first time in his career.
Maye wouldn’t be in that group.
He talks like a guy who always knew he could play like that and was determined to prove the doubters wrong. He got lots of credit for his huge games in the South Regional and the game-winning shot against Kentucky.
But he didn’t score in the Final Four and he took notice when some observers minimized the impact he could have on this UNC team. He apparently collects those slights as motivation.
“I have some things but I’m kind of keeping them to myself,” said Maye, who is accustomed to being doubted and using that to inspire him.
“Out of high school, I wasn’t very highly recruited and I feel like that was kind of a disservice to me because I feel like I did as much if not more than a lot of guys,” Maye said. “I felt like I had a big opportunity here. A lot of people doubted me and I just wanted to prove people wrong and really wanted to work hard and play my game.”
Don’t count Coach Roy Williams as one of his doubters. His main criticism of Maye’s play in the jamboree Sunday was his eight turnovers. But Maye only had one turnover Friday, and that off of an offensive foul.
“He’s been playing very well and he is confident and he should be because he is a very good basketball player and his preparation, trying to take care of his body and trying to be a better player is about as high as it can possibly be,” Williams said. “So, he is seeing the benefits of some of that work.”
While Maye’s words may sound cocky, they don’t come across that way because they are delivered in his typically respectful, gentlemanly Southern manner. There are still a few “yes sirs,” mixed in with his confident words.
“I think I pose a huge mismatch, whether it be on a big guy or a small guy, just because I can play both inside and out and my versatility is really going to help us really spread the floor,” Maye said.
He showed that his game has expanded in the offseason, with a quicker release, a step-back jumper, better post moves and huge confidence.
“Catching it in a pocket and being able to it get off is something I try to perfect and continue to work on,” Maye said. “I’ve tried to continue to get a little more well-rounded in the post and really kind of score more inside.
There were a lot of new experiences for Maye with freshmen Garrison Brooks, Sterling Manley and Brandon Huffman playing up front with him instead of Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks and Tony Bradley.
Maye got double-teamed, which rarely happened last season. He says that since opponents have to respect his perimeter shot (he was 2-of-3 from 3-point range), it will help his young frontcourt teammates.
“I think it gives them more opportunities in the post and it really allows them to kind of work one on one and because I’m out on the perimeter they can’t really double as easily,” Maye said.
Last month, Williams said if you put those three freshmen big men together, they still wouldn’t produce one good player. Asked about it after Friday’s game, he said his opinion hasn’t changed.
With none of them overly impressing Williams, Brooks apparently started because he is doing more of what he’s supposed to do.
“Garrison is playing more minutes because he is making fewer mistakes,” Williams said. “He’s boxing out more, he’s running the floor more. I took him out of the game because he didn’t run the floor, so hopefully we are teaching some lessons.”
The trio combined for 27 points and 15 rebounds, led by 14 points from Brooks. Manley came off the bench with nine points and eight rebounds.
“I think one time they doubled Garrison because he was doing so well in the post and I got an easy layup,” Maye said. “And I think it’s going to continue to cause people problems and it’s going to make it harder to double with two bigs because I’m going to be a little bit more on the perimeter.”
Theo Pinson, who had three points and five assists, says these UNC big men have shown the ability to get up and down the court.
“The thing is, we’ve got some bigs that can run,” Pinson said. “Garrison can run. Sterling is getting a whole lot better. As you can see, Luke, he’s just going to run people to the ground. They all played well tonight. We’re going to need that every night.”
Yes, it was only against Northern Iowa. But when you consider that it came without Joel Berry and Cameron Johnson, it has to give the team confidence in what it can accomplish once both of those players are in the lineup.
Johnson hurt his neck while setting a screen in practice on Tuesday and was held out. Berry went through warmups and was shooting efficiently with both his right hand (which still has tape around his pinkie and ring finger) and his left hand.
Berry seems likely to return sooner than later. Once he and Johnson play, the better-than-expected frontcourt play shows that these Tar Heels may be more dangerous than most observers expected.
Not that this surprises Maye.