As North Carolina and Ohio State warmed up before the first game in last weekend’s CBS Sports Classic, highlights of the Tar Heels’ storied basketball history played on the video screens. Familiar faces appeared. Michael Jordan. Dean Smith. Phil Ford. Charlie Scott. James Worthy.
What passed for a crowd in the half-filled Smoothie King Arena sat in what seemed like respectful silence. Then the video showed Luke Maye’s game-winning shot against Kentucky in the South Region finals last March.
Booing erupted, no doubt led by the UK fans in attendance.
In case anyone doubted Maye’s villainy in the Big Blue Nation, his later introduction as a North Carolina starter incited even louder boos.
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A question came to mind: What was Maye supposed to do with the ball in his hands in the final seconds against Kentucky? Not shoot to try to win the game?
As villains go, Maye does not fit the profile. No self-absorbed recruiting prospect, he originally agreed to be an invited walk-on at UNC. His game lacks look-at-me flamboyance. His emergence this season as a consistently impactful player is a product of attributes that are the stuff of sports fiction: hard work, determination, perseverance. He even said, “I take pride in my academics.”
On a floor full of NBA-bound players in the South Region finals, Maye made for an unlikely UK villain/UNC hero. Maybe that was the problem. Maybe the booing fans can better accept NCAA Tournament elimination if delivered by a certified star (although Christian Laettner might argue with that).
After North Carolina beat Ohio State last weekend, Maye shrugged off the booing. He also pointed out that not all UK fans have shown him ill will. Some congratulate him on making a clutch shot, he said. Some have asked him to take a selfie that they can show friends.
“I just try to go out there and play my game,” he said. “I mean, last year is last year. This year is a new year. I’m trying to do whatever I can to help my team win.”
The new basketball year has been a revelation for Maye, a 6-foot-8 junior forward. His seven double-doubles going into this weekend’s play ranked No. 16 nationally. His average of 10.5 rebounds ranked 12th. He also averaged 18.5 points and had made 52.8 percent of his shots, which included making nearly half of his three-point attempts (17 of 37).
Maye became the first UNC player since Antawn Jamison in 1996 to score at least 100 points and grab at least 50 rebounds in the first five games. After averaging 5.5 points last season, he’s on pace to have the largest one-season increase in North Carolina history (as of now, the record is a 12.1-point increase by Donald Williams from 1991-92 to 1992-93).
After his nine points and 10 rebounds helped North Carolina beat Ohio State, Maye explained his breakout season.
“Just hard work and making sure I get in the gym extra,” he said.
How hard did Maye work? This past offseason he won all of UNC’s offseason conditioning competitions, including the mile run, which is a tradition dating to Dean Smith.
“I knew that Tyler Hansbrough wanted to be a great player, and was going to work, work, work, work,” North Carolina Coach Roy Williams told the Raleigh News & Observer. “And you hope that with everybody. But I think Luke has fulfilled my expectations for how badly he wants to be a good player, and then some. His desire is just off the charts.”
Maye, a native of Huntersville, N.C., did not have a scholarship offer coming out of high school. He said other Atlantic Coast Conference schools showed interest. So did Davidson, which once turned a mid-level prospect named Steph Curry into a star.
Maye comes from a UNC family. His father, Mark Maye, played quarterback for the Tar Heels. Maye attended UNC basketball camps as a kid.
Maye accepted Williams’ offer to be a walk-on. Then late in the recruiting year, a scholarship became available. According to the News & Observer, Williams then suggested Maye ask his parents for $1,000 to spend on a trip to the beach.
“Williams’ reasoning: He’d just saved Maye’s parents about $25,000 in tuition,” wrote Andrew Carter of the News & Observer.
Maye keeps a list of slights, insults and other negativity. He draws motivation from the list, although it’s not a subject he warmed up to when asked about it after North Carolina beat Ohio State.
“I just try to continue to play my game and don’t listen to what people have to say,” he said.
Maye’s game-winning shot against Kentucky was instantly an iconic moment. In the locker room after the game, walk-on Aaron Rohlman stopped Maye and asked to take a selfie with him.
The shot that beat UK was also unscripted. More celebrated teammates like Joel Berry II, Justin Jackson, Kennedy Meeks or Theo Pinson seemed more likely to take the shot. “It was just freelance,” Maye said.
The shot capped a 17-point, two-assist, no-turnover performance. According to UNC’s media notes, Maye became the first non-starter to be named a region Most Valuable Player since Marcus Camby of UMass in 1996.
Maye acknowledged watching replays of the shot “a good amount.” But he’s moved on. “Now, it’s a new year,” he said. “Just trying to make new memories.”
A look of surprise crossed Maye’s face last weekend when he was told that North Carolina will play Kentucky in the CBS Sports Classic next season, which will be his senior season. “I think we play UCLA,” he said.
A teammate standing nearby assured Maye that, yes, UNC will play UK in Chicago in the 2018-19 season. More booing seems a certainty.
“I think it’s going to be a fun game,” Maye said. “I’m excited about it.”
Rollin’ with Nolan
The art of scheduling can be challenging. Former Arkansas Coach Nolan Richardson had a catchy way of summarizing his philosophy about scheduling.
“I was always concerned with this: were we a play away from winning or were we a player away from winning?” he said. “If I thought we were a play away from winning, then it was good scheduling. If I thought we got overwhelmed by some team, then I thought it was poor scheduling.”
Kentucky seemed a play or two away from winning against Kansas and UCLA. So by Richardson’s reckoning, UK scheduled well.
Richardson, who turned 76 on Wednesday, said he watched Kentucky’s game against Kansas. He liked what he saw from UK, in particular how defense could create transition offense and the offense included stop-me-if-you-can drives to the basket.
“They have the kind of team I’d love to coach,” he said. “Athletic. Long. They touch the ball (get deflections). They’re going to be something to reckon with. They’ve got the makings of a team that can be a Southeastern Conference champion.”
2014 vs. 2018
A story last week noted that early in the preseason John Calipari likened the current Cats to his team in 2013-14. Each was heavily dependent on freshmen.
The 2013-14 team had more returning experience led by sophomores Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein.
In 2013-14, the returning veterans (which included seniors Jarrod Polson and Jon Hood), had a combined 31 starts and a collective average of 68.2 minutes per game. This season’s veterans had 23 previous starts (all by Wenyen Gabriel) and an average of 33.3 minutes per game of experience.
In terms of previous scoring, the veterans going into 2013-14 averaged a collective 23.2 points. That’s more than double the collective average of 8.9 points by this season’s veterans.
In preparation for last week’s note about the increasing attention paid to analytics, an email was sent to longtime sportswriter Bob Ryan of The Boston Globe. Ryan wrote about the Celtics and the NBA with such an authoritative tone that he was dubbed “the commissioner.”
So what does Ryan think of analytics?
“I find the analytics amusingly informative,” he wrote in an email response. “I do not rely on them.”
To former UK assistant coach Jim Hatfield. He turned 74 on Thursday. . . . To Travis Ford. He turned 48 on Friday. . . . To Eloy Vargas. He turned 29 on Saturday. . . . To Randolph Morris. He turns 31 on Tuesday. . . . To Irving Thomas. He turns 51 on Tuesday. . . . To former UK president Charles Wethington. He turns 81 on Tuesday. . . . To Steve Bruce. He turns 50 on Wednesday.