When Joel Berry II committed to Roy Williams and the University of North Carolina on January 21, 2013, he joined fellow McDonald’s All-Americans Justin Jackson and Theo Pinson, giving the Tar Heels a stacked recruiting class.
In his Sophomore season, Berry saw a huge jump in minutes and production. He secured a starting spot in the backcourt alongside Marcus Paige and was second on the team in scoring at 12.8 PPG. He also led the team in three point percentage at 38%, averaging just 1.55 turnovers per game, the fewest ever by a Tar Heel starting point guard.
Former Tar Heel Raymond Felton is the only Carolina point guard to ever average more points, rebounds, assists and steals per game in a season.
While Berry was performed well all season, he took his play to another level at the start of the post-season. In the 2016 ACC tournament, he led UNC to the championship and earned tournament MVP honors. Berry was the first Tar Heel point guard since Phil Ford in 1975 to achieve this award.
Throughout this tournament, it became clear that Joel Berry was a very special player, and he was capable of stepping up in big games.
UNC went into the 2016 NCAA Tournament riding high, just coming off an ACC championship. Forward Brice Johnson had just been named a first team All-American, and Marcus Paige was playing as good as he had all season. Sophomore point guard Joel Berry had just been named ACC tournament MVP and was playing his personal best basketball of his college career.
The Heels stormed through their first five games with relative ease, the closest one being a 14 point victory over Notre Dame in the Elite Eight.
Then came Villanova.
Carolina had all the confidence in the world up to this point in the tournament, but clearly was nervous to start this game. The one player who stood out was Joel Berry.
While Marcus Paige was the hero that kept the Heels in it late and hit one of the greatest shots in college basketball history to tie it up – a tremendous effort that will NEVER be forgotten by Tar Heel fans, even though the media seems to do so – Berry was the best overall player wearing Carolina blue that day.
Berry led the way with 20 points and connected on all four of his three point attempts. This game was one of the most crushing defeats in UNC history, but Berry showed the country that no moment was too big for him – this would be confirmed just one year later.
At the start of the 2016-17 North Carolina Tar Heels basketball season, there was a common goal among each and every member of the team: Redemption.
It was clear early on that Berry was the leader of this team and he was the guy whom UNC would go to when it needed a big play. Justin Jackson had the better individual season, but Berry was by far UNC‘s most important player.
Everything the Heels did was worse without Berry on the floor including offensive and defensive efficiency, shooting, and they just didn’t look right without him in the mix. He averaged 14.7 PPG, 3.6 APG, and 3.1 RPG.
Berry went on to lead the Heels to another ACC regular season championship, which convinced the NCAA selection committee to award UNC a #1 seed in the tournament for the second straight year.
In Carolina’s opening game against Texas Southern, Berry stepped on a players foot and injured his ankle. UNC fans everywhere held their breath until news broke that it was a minor injury and Berry was fine. The real problem happened in the Elite Eight game against Kentucky, when Berry injured the OTHER ankle, and this time it was much worse. He was somehow able to return to the game, and the Heels fought through and pulled out a victory to advance to their second straight Final Four.
Throughout his three year career at Carolina, Joel Berry II had kept a list of goals that he intended to achieve during his time there.
Almost every item on this list had been checked off: be the best shooter I can be; be a big-time player for the team; win an ACC regular season championship; win an ACC tournament; go to the final four. But one bullet remained unchecked: win a National Championship.
One year later Berry and the Heels were just a single game away, but this would be no small task. Both of Berry’s ankles were still a huge problem, and he had just played a couple nights ago against Oregon in the Final Four.
Berry struggled mightily.
Critics questioned whether or not he was in good enough condition for UNC to even have a chance Monday night versus Gonzaga. Berry answered those critics with a fantastic championship game performance that resulted in him being named Most Outstanding player of the Final Four.
There would be no heartbreak this year for the Tar Heels, as redemption had been achieved, and it was largely because of Berry.
Similar to the previous season, UNC came out seeming somewhat nervous and was ice cold in the first half. Yet again, Berry stood out, never backing down from the biggest stage, while playing through two bad ankles. He scored 22 points, cashed in six assists, and grabbed three rebounds on that night, leading the Tar Heels to their seventh National Championship and cementing his place in UNC basketball history forever.
Even if he had decided to forgo his senior year at Carolina and enter the NBA draft, Joel Berry would still be considered one of the greatest point guards in the history of North Carolina basketball. His decision to return and finish his collegiate career in Chapel Hill gives him a very good chance to join very elite company.
If you asked anyone around Carolina Basketball who the greatest Tar Heel point guards ever were, the list would likely consist of Phil Ford, Ty lawson, Raymond Felton, and Kenny Smith. You can make an argument that Berry has already surpassed some of the players on that list, but there are two ways he can distinctly do so.
First, he can lead the Tar Heels to a third straight Final Four. Ty Lawson played in two final fours, but played second fiddle to Tyler Hansbrough in both of them. Phil Ford is one if the top three greatest players in UNC history, but only played in one Final Four. Raymond Felton also played in one.
In the history of Carolina Basketball, the team has advanced to three straight final fours only once, (1967-69) but only advanced to the championship game one time out of those three years losing to Lew Alcindor and UCLA. The Heels we know today have already advanced to the past two championship games, winning one of them. A third straight final four appearance would make this by far the most successful three year stretch in Carolina history.
UNC will have a solid all-around team next season, but if it is playing into April it will be because of Berry.
Berry could become the winningest point guard in UNC history, putting him ahead of Ford, Lawson and Smith, at least in that aspect.
Even if the Tar Heels have a rough year as a team next season, Berry could still elevate his status among all-time great Carolina point guards. He will certainly be one of the best point guards in the nation next year, and will likely be on everyone’s Wooden Award watch list.
If the senior puts together a player of the year-type season, he could also elevate himself alongside or past Ford, Lawson, Felton and Smith. If he were to actually win the award, he would join eight other Tar Heels that have their retired jerseys hung inside the Dean Dome.
Berry will lead UNC’s offense again this season and it will be a more perimeter oriented one, so, it is a reasonable expectation for him to be in the Wooden Award conversation for most of the year.
It might be is a longshot, but, if Berry and the Heels were to achieve both of these goals next season, he could become the most accomplished Point Guard to ever wear Carolina blue.