At Thursday’s press conference, head coach Roy Williams said he didn’t know who he was going to start in the No. 9 North Carolina men’s basketball team’s season-opening game.
Graduate transfer Cameron Johnson — whose arrival from Pittsburgh headlined the Tar Heels’ offseason — wasn’t 100 percent healthy after tweaking his neck at Tuesday’s practice. And North Carolina’s unquestioned leader at the point guard spot, Joel Berry II, was still sidelined with a right hand injury.
“(And) Kenny sprained his ankle yesterday, Theo sprained his ankle the day before,” Williams said.
Williams knocked on wood.
“Luke’s going to start,” he said, starting to break into laughter. “And if he gets hurt today, I will never freaking tell you that again for the rest of my life.”
In UNC’s 86-69 victory over Northern Iowa on Friday, junior forward Luke Maye proved as reliable as his coach let on. He led North Carolina in scoring with his career high 26 points and added 10 rebounds in his second-ever collegiate start.
“He’s been confident, and he should be,” Williams said of Maye. “He’s a very good basketball player. His preparation, trying to take care of his body and trying to become a better player is … Guys, it’s about as high as it could possibly be.”
Maye showcased the plethora of offensive moves he honed over the offseason in the Tar Heels’ season-opener. He made use of quick drop-steps and spin moves in the post and stretched the floor with the long ball — shooting 2-3 from behind the arc. He’s confident he’ll be able to pose mismatches for future teams because of his versatility.
“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,” said Maye, who ranked 97th in ESPN’s top 100 recruits. “I really feel like I had a great opportunity here. And a lot of people kind of doubted me, and I just wanted to prove people wrong.”
The Huntersville native became a Tar Heel the same year his current roommate and close friend, Kenny Williams, did. The junior guard — who originally committed to Virginia Commonwealth before flipping to UNC — was one of three Tar Heels to end their season opener in double figures.
He smiled and took a beeline for his head coach after he drew a charge. He played to the crowd after he’d hit the floor in pursuit of a loose ball.
Simply put, he had fun.
“I’m just playing hard, so it makes it a little bit more fun for everybody,” Williams said. “I know coach appreciates that. That’s all he wants. So when he sees that, he appreciates it a lot.”
Like his junior teammate, Williams was not a lottery pick waiting to happen when he arrived in Chapel Hill. He was listed at a wiry 6-foot-4, 175 pounds and converted just eight field goals his entire first season. By his sophomore season, after gaining a significant amount of weight, Williams started 22 games and Coach Williams labeled him as his best perimeter defender.
All this happened, of course, before tearing a meniscus in his right knee, which ended his 2016-17 season.
“I mean he has had some tough times, he hasn’t had the chance to play as much,” Coach Williams said of Williams. “It’s like a rebirth for him to be back out there on the court having fun.”
Two years ago, the two juniors hadn’t convinced anyone besides themselves that they’d lead North Carolina at any point in their careers. Now, with their team 1-0 even without some of its integral pieces, the juniors are the ones drawing the attention.
And even though their personalities don't typically steer them toward the spotlight, they seem to be comfortable enough with all eyes on them.