North Carolina Coach Roy Williams and a few Tar Heels basketball players were on the podium at the NCAA Tournament site in Memphis on Saturday to preview Sunday’s rematch with the Kentucky Wildcats in the Elite Eight. Here’s what Williams and his players had to say:
ROY WILLIAMS: The same thing everybody else says: We’re ecstatic we’re still here having press conferences. Couldn’t think of anything I’d rather be doing right now. But we’ve already had a little practice, and now we’ll get a chance to relax a little bit. This press conference will be very quick. Every one I have this evening will be very quick. At 5:00 I’m walking the ducks from Peabody’s lobby back up to the top, so my butt is getting out of here. But it’s great to be here. How’s that for an opening statement?
Q. Joel and Justin, everybody says that at this time of the year, guard play is just so important; you’re going up against two pretty good guards in Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox. When you signed up to play basketball for the University of North Carolina, isn’t that exactly the kind of game that you all were hoping to play in?
JUSTIN JACKSON: Yeah, I mean, we came to North Carolina to be in these type of games, to play against the top players in the country. You know, I don’t think it could be on any better stage. Obviously we played them already once and Malik went crazy. But it’s a different team, different time of the year. I think we’ve gotten better, they’ve gotten better, so we’ve got to pay attention to our scout and know personnel, but then we’ve just got to come out and play as hard as possible.
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JOEL BERRY II: Yeah, I think what Justin said, that’s what we come to college basketball for, and it doesn’t get any better than this. We lost to them early in the season, so it was kind of another revenge game for us, and we just don’t want to give the game that Malik had. We want to be able to stay on him and not let him get 47 on us again, so that’s the biggest thing.
But regardless of that, I mean, these are the type of games we want to be in.
Q. Kennedy and Joel, Bam Adebayo fouled out in the first game, played 19 minutes. How did that game change when he left, and how have you seen his game evolve in the intervening months?
KENNEDY MEEKS: Well, I’m pretty sure I fouled out before he did (laughter), so I mean, you can figure that out. That’s our main goal is to definitely get their bigs in foul trouble. I think they’re limited in that position. I feel like Bam is definitely a great player, and we want to get him out of the game as much as possible.
JOEL BERRY II: Yeah, he’s a force on the blocking. When he catches it low, it’s kind of hard. It’s hard to stop him. If we can get him in foul trouble, attack him, even if he’s not in foul trouble, just get him up and down the court and make him run, I think that’ll make his legs a little tired. But at the end of the day, if we can get him in foul trouble and get him out of there, on the offensive end for us, we can attack the basket without having a shock blocker down low. And then when they’re on offense, they don’t have that force to be able to either get it down to him or throw those alleys that they like to throw.
Q. This is for anyone other than Theo. Since Theo didn’t play in the first game when you saw them, how much of a difference can his presence in the lineup make? And then Theo, what do you think you can add that wasn’t there in the first game?
KENNEDY MEEKS: We talked about this a couple times. Maybe if Theo was playing, Malik only has 30 points and we still win the game. That’s just the type of effect that he has. Even though all of us get tired sometimes, I think he’s definitely one of the best defenders, and I think he does a great job of coming in the game and giving us a lift.
Yesterday, he did a great job defending, but we could have done a better job rebounding.
JOEL BERRY II: Yeah, I think he gives us a presence just being a long defender. I think Kenny plays Malik the majority of the game, he doesn’t have as much length as Theo, so I think length can affect him. And then, I mean, just Theo with his game of just facilitating, that can help us on the offensive end. But just overall, just having that length on the defensive end on one of their guys that got hot, I think that would have made the difference.
THEO PINSON: I don’t think there was much that was going to stop him that night. He was unbelievable. I think it just comes to the point of just giving him different looks. We had a lot of rotation with Kenny and Nate that we put on him most of the game. He’s jumping over them, shooting right over them a little bit. But they did as much as they could to at least be there as much as they could to affect him. But I think just my length, I just try to bother him a little bit, not try to do anything more or anything less, just try to make it tough on him every time he gets the ball.
Q. Justin, can you talk about your relationship with De’Aaron Fox, and have you been surprised at all by what he’s done, especially in this tournament?
JUSTIN JACKSON: I mean, yeah, we played on the same AAU team; I guess my last AAU season, he was a freshman. I always knew even from the first time that he came in and tried out for our team — well, I guess not really tried out — but first practice that we had with him, that he was going to be good. I didn’t know that he was going to have this type of impact right away.
But I mean, the way he’s been playing, he had 39 last night. He’s gotten better and better as the season has gone on. So I mean, it’s great for him, but we have to key in and try to slow him down as much as possible. He’s fast. He’s explosive. And when he gets going, the rest of the team gets going.
You know, him and the rest of the guards, we really have to try to stop and try to at least slow them down. They’re going to hit tough shots. They’re going to make great plays, but we have to try to slow them down as much as possible.
Q. Joel and Theo, you guys have waited a long time to get back to this point. You’ve obviously been heavily motivated from the way last season ended. How much of an edge is that against over a team whose best players have never really experienced the heartbreak you guys have been through?
JOEL BERRY II: Yeah, you can look at experience and what we’ve been through. We want to get back to the Final Four, but they’re a great team, and even though they haven’t been to this spot before they’re still coming out there, playing like it’s just a regular season game. I know there’s a lot of pressure on the game because you lose, you go home. But they’re still a great team, and they’re playing some great basketball right now.
We just have to realize our ultimate goal and what we want to do, and then we’ve just got to be ready to play tomorrow and just realize that tomorrow is the important game, and we’ll worry about the Final Four and that stuff later on.
THEO PINSON: Yeah, just like Joel said, just take it one game at a time. We understand what we’re trying to do, get back to the Final Four, have another chance at the National Title game. But we’ve got to take care of tomorrow’s game first. Those guys, they’re young, but they’re still hungry. They want to be there, too. It’s going to be an all-out dogfight.
Q. What are you guys doing to have fun? I know a lot of people keep asking you about the game and making it like super tough. How are you enjoying the moment, just enjoying being in the Elite 8 and enjoying the presence of being with your team?
KENNEDY MEEKS: I think we have fun with each other regardless. I think on the court, in practice, we enjoy each other. Off the court, we go to each other’s rooms in the hotel, laugh, play video games, and try to enjoy the moment. And especially for me, Isaiah and Nate, Stillman, Kanler, it’s our last go-around, so we want to make it a good one. Coach has prepared us a great deal, and we’re going to have as much fun as we can, but at the same time, we’ve still got to think about the games and take it one step at a time.
THEO PINSON: I know I told the guys before the tournament started, Coach does a great job of just letting us be ourselves. I think that’s what drives us throughout this tournament. We love each other so much, and we want to play for each other, and we don’t want this journey to end. It makes us play even harder during the games, and not wanting this journey to end and keep going so we can still be together and have all those fun moments that has us spend more time together.
ROY WILLIAMS: If I can interject something here, we scrimmaged Memphis here in the fall. So we came down, and at that time we had even more time to relax a little bit, and we went to the Martin Luther King Museum and did some things there that was more of the educational, fun kind of thing, and these guys can have fun in a phone booth, so I don’t worry too much about them.
Q. Isaiah and Kennedy, being that you guys played in that National Championship game, what has been individually your biggest motivating factor to get back to this point?
ISAIAH HICKS: You know, it’s not just us; all of us on the team, that was our ultimate goal last year to win the Championship. We was four seconds away from that. Just to see your dream taken away right in front of you, that’s all the motivation you need. Of course nobody likes to lose, but that one, when you’re right there, all of us, we just need that second chance.
KENNEDY MEEKS: Isaiah, that’s a great answer. You kind of surprised me a little bit. (Laughter).
ROY WILLIAMS: Thanks for asking Isaiah a question. He was about to fall asleep.
KENNEDY MEEKS: But no, I think the main thing for the seniors has been thinking about this is our last chance at it. We have a great group of underclassmen, juniors, and a great coaching staff that stands behind us, who stays in practice, during games, off the court. And for us to be in the position that we’re in right now, with the Elite Eight, a chance to play against a great team, and have a chance to win the game, you couldn’t ask for more.
I think that me and Isaiah for sure have worked tremendously hard to prepare ourselves for this season, and it’s put us in a great position, and we couldn’t do it without our teammates.
Q. How strange was it seeing or how awkward was it to see Kris Jenkins behind your bench yesterday, and how strange was it to have him rooting for you?
KENNEDY MEEKS: I don’t think it was awkward at all, just because he’s a great dude, and he’s one of our friends, I guess you could say. And he’s Nate’s brother, of course, so you can’t really avoid him, I guess you could say. He just so happened to hit a big time shot against us last year, and of course you can dislike him at the moment for it, but at the same time, you’ve got to kind of move forward. We’ve got a chance to play for a championship this year, though, so we’re looking forward to it.
Q. Theo and Joel and anybody else who wants to answer, early in the summer you guys did like the pull-ups, the Instagram little pull-up videos with Kris Jenkins and it was something that you guys just did that was funny. What have been some of the unique, funny things you guys have done maybe just between you guys since?
ROY WILLIAMS: I’m glad I have no idea what you’re talking about.
JOEL BERRY II: I don’t think we’ve really done anything. I just think it’s us just still dancing like we always do. I think the other day was the first time of me doing something. I did the get-out challenge, and so that was like the only thing I’ve done this year. But other than that, I mean, I really haven’t done anything.
THEO PINSON: That was probably the last thing we did, the pull-up thing. We ain’t come up with nothing else. We’ll have to start thinking about it now.
JOEL BERRY II: Everything else that came out was pretty lame.
Q. Kennedy and Isaiah or Justin, they’re one of the few teams to actually out-rebound you this year. What challenges do they present on the interior, and is it different to be facing a team that actually can hold its own on the glass against you guys?
JUSTIN JACKSON: Yeah, I think the biggest thing is their guards rebound extremely well, as well. You know, most teams they send two or three guys back because they know that we like to get out in transition. For them, they send those two or three guys to the offensive glass. And so for that, that’s huge for the bigs to rebound, but the guards have to box out and rebound and find a guy every single time because they’re going. I mean, I know Isaiah Briscoe. He’s one of their best rebounders at the 2 spot. Malik will get in there. Fox, he’s athletic. Their guards do a great job as well as getting to the offensive glass.
ISAIAH HICKS: It’s just like Justin said. It’s all about all fouling and rebounding. Usually teams do get back on us, but they attack the glass just like we do. That kind of caught us off guard even though the coaches warned us, but us as players got to get in there and box out and stop them.
KENNEDY MEEKS: I would definitely say offensive rebounding is our game. That’s something we definitely take pride in, and I feel like for them to out-rebound us, we should be disappointed in that because we should do a great job with that every game. And like Coach says all the time, when their shot goes up, we’ve got to do our best job to try to box their guys out, and even on our offensive end, we’ve got to get around the box-out. I think we’ve got to do a tremendous job with that this game if we’re going to come out with the victory.
Q. When Joel hurt his ankle, Coach made a reference that he wished he was Mr. Miyagi and clap his hands together and make Joel’s ankle better. Are there references that — obviously that’s from a movie before any of you guys were born. Are there references the coach makes that sometimes go over your head, sort of like social media with Coach?
JUSTIN JACKSON: Yeah, there’s a lot of them that we just say yes, sir and move on, even though we might not know what’s going on. But I guess that’s just kind of the different times.
KENNEDY MEEKS: He’s not of our day and age.
ROY WILLIAMS: That’s an inside joke. I tell them all the time, “I am not of your generation,” and I like that. None of these guys have ever been in a phone booth.
Q. Coach, what do you try to do to bridge the gap, to try to relate to your players and such?
ROY WILLIAMS: I don’t know what the crap they’re talking about. I use my phone to call somebody and they call me. I don’t use if for any of the other — you’re talking about Instagram, I have no idea what you’re talking about. It is a generational gap there, but we have one thing in common, and that is we’re all willing to sacrifice for a common goal, and I love situations trying to get kids to make those sacrifices. And we all love to win. I think that I try to give them a passion, and they have a passion for winning and trying to be better players themselves.
Q. When you guys met in December, did you hope to have another opportunity to play them again, and how have the two teams kind of changed since then?
ROY WILLIAMS: Well, it’s a good question. If somebody beats you, you want to have a chance to play them again. It doesn’t mean you’re going to beat them the next time, but you do have that. And because we’re not in the same league, we knew that if we played them again that it would have to be in the NCAA Tournament, so you would hope it is as far down the line as you possibly could.
De’Aaron Fox after the game last night said one big difference in their team is that they were so much better defensively than they were when we played before. That game, we shoot 53 percent, they shoot 54. It was 103-100, so we’ve got to get a lot better defensively. I think we’re better in some ways and some times, but I think they really have improved there.
With the freshmen, with De’Aaron and Bam and Malik, those guys have gotten more used to what college basketball is all about.
Q. You’ve mentioned before how the way last year ended drove these guys through the off-season. Does it drive them even now? And second of all, family is important to Nate, so it’s important to Kris, but going back to what was asked of the players, is it unusual to look over and see the guys who was responsible for tearing your heart out last year to be there?
ROY WILLIAMS: Well, I’ll answer the second part first. They told me after the game that he was there, so I didn’t know he was there until then. What was really ironic is a couple of weeks — I’m not sure, I don’t think it was more than a couple of weeks after the season was over last year, one of the assistants came in and said Kris was there and wanted to know if he could play pick-up with our guys that afternoon. That was a little unusual. I said, no. Tell him I’m sending in a hitman down to take care of him. But he played pick-up with our guys that afternoon.
I was in their home and saw Kris play tons of times in high school and told Nate Britt, Sr., that we’re in a situation, we have some scholarship questions, and what we’re going to do, but if Kris did not sign in the fall that I would be interested in talking to him in the spring because I’ve always liked an undersized 4 man, which is what I thought he was at that time.
And as far as the first part of the question, the motivation, I think it did make those guys work harder in the off-season. Right now, to be honest with you, it’s brought up more by you guys than it is our guys or even the coaching staff. I asked them one time, what’s the most fun you’ve ever had in basketball, and they said, last year, and I think that’s the motivation as opposed to just we got beat.
Q. Typically right up until the NCAA Tournament the post and going inside is such a big part of your offense. Feels like this has been a very perimeter-oriented NCAA Tournament for you guys. Does that surprise you, and are there other things you can do to get Isaiah and Kennedy more involved other than offensive rebounds?
ROY WILLIAMS: You know, I got on them last night in the game because we took like five outside shots in a row one time and didn’t make any of them. I’ve always said if you take two threes in a row and you miss, then the next one should be get the ball inside the lane at one point. It if come back out, that’s fine.
But no, we still want to attack it inside. We haven’t been as successful. But the game, the flow of the game changes. In the Texas Southern game, Justin made five out of six threes in the first half. I wanted him to shoot 25 of them at that percentage. But no, we’re still trying to establish something inside. Even last night I thought in the first half, we did a better job of it, focusing on it. And in the second half, I think we did it because it wasn’t working outside. But if you remember, Seventh made the pass to Isaiah on the roll and he scores; we threw it to Kennedy inside, he scores; Justin drove to the basket and dished it off to somebody and they scored. So we still tried to get it in there. But the flow of the game and how they’re shooting the ball a lot of times dictates that, as well.
Q. When did you see a difference in Justin Jackson? Was it in the off-season, over the summer, or was there a point during the season that he really kind of came into his own?
ROY WILLIAMS: You know, we spent quite a bit of time talking last spring after the season was over, after the Combine, of what he needed to do, and I would just check with him during the course of the summer: How’s it going, what are you doing? But then when we got to July, we practiced once a week for an hour and a half, four straight weeks, and I thought I saw a different Justin then because it was pretty easy because the ball kept going in as opposed to rimming out and that kind of thing. Then when preseason practice started, or pre-conference, before we started playing games, schedules changed so much, we started like the first weekend, October 3. And those first three or four weeks it was just so much more confident a player, and I think that carried over right into the start of the season.
Q. How do you evaluate the relative strength of conferences, and do you think that the NCAA Tournament is a fair barometer? And second, back on the point you made earlier about the progress of some of the Kentucky players, what kinds of mistakes are they not making now that maybe you saw in December?
ROY WILLIAMS: You know, the barometer for your conference, it depends on what you like. All the ACC fans last year, they thought the NCAA Tournament was the best barometer because we were the best. Now that we’re not — the ACC fans are not saying too much about that, so I think it’s dependent on who you like. I don’t think there is any one — I’ll use your terminology — one barometer that you can measure that by. I thought we had a fantastic league this year, extremely competitive top to bottom. Just fantastic is all I can come up with.
But we didn’t play nearly as well in the first weekend in the NCAA Tournament as we did last year. Again, I don’t think there is one way, it just depends who you want to cheer for, and you pick what you want.
The Kentucky players, I think that De’Aaron is still in the attack mode, but I think he’s more deliberate. I haven’t studied the stats for the second 15, the last 15 games of the year as opposed to the first 15, but it looks to me like his shooting percentage is going up. Bam is more selective about his shots. I think they’re going to Bam more throughout the course, down the stretch, in the tournament, the SEC Tournament and this tournament wanting him to be more of a force, getting him more touches in the lane.
Malik is — he’s set the world on fire against us. That’s as good of an exhibition as I’ve ever had in 29 years as a head coach, and I’ve had some guys that lit us up quite a bit. I was dumb enough the week before the game to say, so-and-so got 43 but we won the game; so-and-so got 45, but we won the game; so-and-so got 46, but we won the game. Dumbest dad-gum thing I’ve ever said, because he got 47 and we didn’t win the game.
But I think all of them have just improved. Probably John would be able to answer it better, but he would probably say more about the defensive end of the floor. But I think their shot selection and taking care of the ball is also better.
Q. When I talked to you in October, you had lost Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson, but you sounded optimistic about what your underclassmen were developing into. Talk about their development this year, and about the continuity of that within your program over the years of having those veteran guys that keep getting better.
ROY WILLIAMS: Well, you know, it was, because we lost Marcus Paige, who was our defensive Player of the Year for four years, plus was really dad-gum good on the offensive end, was our leader on the offensive end, too. And Brice Johnson, who, even though I thought about strangling him about 4,000 times, each 1,000 he got better and better and better, and last year he was phenomenal. So those two guys left. But I did feel good about Joel and Justin and Theo and Kennedy and Isaiah and Nate. They’ve really stepped up their game, particularly Justin and Joel probably more than anybody.
So I think that those guys, the leadership that they’ve shown, the experience that they’ve had has really been good, and over the course of our time, I’ve never been against kids to come in and leave after one year, two years. I think I probably even told you this. Everybody acts like I put handcuffs on them. But we really have — since my first year at Kansas had more people leave early to the NBA except Kentucky; more than Duke, more than Louisville, more than anybody except Kentucky since we started. But they do get there and sort of enjoy it, sort of like it.
So those guys like a Brice Johnson, who was not a McDonald’s All-American but got better and better and better, sticks around, and some of the other guys see that improvement, maybe they like that.
But I would love to have a great mix. I’d love to have one or two of those one-and-dones, and then I’d like to have some other guys like a Marcus Paige or a Brice Johnson. If you have both of those, I think you’ve got an unbelievable blend that I would like to have. Maybe I shouldn’t say that you would like to have, but that I would like to have.
But we do want our guys to get better every year, and when guys have been through it a lot, they can really help out those young guys by — I go crazy at times, and they can say, just relax, just listen to what he says, not how he says it or something like that. But the older guys handle it a lot better.
Q. Talking about the one-and-done, is there a difference in maybe how you recruit, having the veteran-laden teams like you guys have as opposed to Coach Calipari who has one-and-done players, year in and year out?
ROY WILLIAMS: Yeah, there’s a difference, he got them and I didn’t. I recruit the same guys. I recruited Bam for a long time. I just thought he was great. I went in to see Malik. De’Aaron, we tried to recruit him early but didn’t think we were getting there. Jayson Tatum, I recruited Jayson Tatum for three years as hard as I could. That’s the only difference is they got them and we didn’t. We’ve got to try to figure out a way to compete with them and go from there.
Before I answer your question, you said that about Bam fouling out. Two guys up here, Isaiah Hicks played 15 minutes in that game and fouled out, and Kennedy played 20 and fouled out. That’s not to say anything about the referees. We’re two teams going up and down the court. There was a lot of opportunities to foul. I mean, there really was.
Q. Regarding the one-and-done, if you had to choose between players going directly from high school to the NBA or being required to spend a second year on campus, which would be better?
ROY WILLIAMS: You know, that’s one — I usually don’t do this and I’m pretty straightforward, but I sort of sit on the fence. There’s no perfect rule. I don’t think we can say that LeBron James made a bad decision, but I can also give you some guys that did make a bad decision, so there’s no perfect rule.
I think it’s better for the majority of the kids to go to college for a year. They’re more mature. The NBA can make better decisions. It’s better for the kids, but it’s also better for the NBA. They don’t screw it up as much. If it’s the second year, it would probably be the same thing, but still, some guys — I’ll just use LeBron as an example. LeBron didn’t need it, and he did pretty doggone well the way it went with him.
I like to coach kids and I like some stability in the program. That’s the reason I always say I’d like to have a mix. What John does is just phenomenal to me. To have to change four, five, six, seven guys every year is just phenomenal. What he does is really special there, and I’m not trying to suck up or anything, I really believe that. For me that would be harder because I like that relationship and watching guys grow and do some of those things, but I’d like to have a mix of them is what I’d really like to have.
Q. When you have a player that likes to take the last shot, to be in that situation, what does it take — what does the player have to have or what are you looking for to know that that’s the guy you can trust with the ball in his hands like last night with Florida getting the game-winning shot?
ROY WILLIAMS: Yeah. You know, you really don’t know. I had Rex Walters that played for us at Kansas two years, played in the NBA, coached at San Francisco, last year he was coaching in the NBDL. He wanted to take that last shot because he knew he was going to make it, and most of the time he did. I’ve had guys like Marcus Paige who just had that inner will power that he could just — the moment was never too big for him. I love having those guys. But I’m also dumb enough, I was coaching in high school, and my buddies were out, and at that time I could say we actually sprinted at that time. They said, if you had to pick one guy to take the free throw at the end of the game to win the game, who would you pick? And I told them which guy. And that night the guy got fouled a two-shot foul and we were down one, and he missed both of them, so I stopped talking about those things. That’s the guy I would have picked.
Those kids, they’re not afraid of the moment, and they really just rise to the occasion, all those clichés you want to use. But Marcus was never afraid, and Marcus — everybody talks about the last shot in the National Championship game. It’s the most unbelievable shot I’ve ever seen. But when you go back and you see the offensive rebound that he got amongst all the trees a couple of possessions before, and he put that one back in, that was even more amazing. But Marcus was never afraid of the moment. He trusted himself, and a lot of those other teammates trusted him a great deal, too.