By R.L. Bynum
NEW ORLEANS — To say that Brady Manek’s one-year Carolina basketball experience has wildly exceeded his expectations would be like saying his hair flows a little bit.
In four seasons at Oklahoma, he never made it to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament. Manek had an overwhelming desire to do that and finally avoid the dreaded No. 8 vs. No. 9 first-round game that ended multiple seasons.
The latter didn’t happen. But he’s helped the Tar Heels shoot past the former with a run to the Final Four and Monday night’s 9:20 matchup with a former Big 12 adversary, No. 3-ranked Kansas, in his final college game (TBS).
“This is way better than anyone expected,” Manek said during a press availability skunday at the Superdome. “Better than I expected [or] my family. You can’t describe it. It’s crazy for me to leave and come to a school and just want to make it to Sweet 16. Just want to have that experience to play in those home games. And then to look back and have all those experiences and more and play in a national championship game?”
Carolina (29–9) wouldn’t still be playing without Manek’s toughness and shooting prowess and the accompanying yells of “bang, bang,” among other phrases, when a huge 3-point attempt falls.
It’s more than the 15.2 points per game and his team-leading 95 3-pointers. It’s his grit inside against bigger and many times more physical and talented opponents that have made a huge difference for the Tar Heels.
“I think Brady has obviously been unbelievable,” said Kansas coach Bill Self, whose Jayhawks won five of eight meetings with Oklahoma when Manek was a Sooner.
Self sees a different Manek under Coach Hubert Davis’ system.
“He was a threat always at OU,” Self said. “But Hubert’s given him a free mind that he feels like that anytime he’s got any separation, all he needs is to let it fly. And that’s a compliment to his coach and their staff, but also he’s such a good player. He’s got such a quick release. It’s a high release.”
Manek expected a great experience playing for a program with a rich basketball tradition but nothing like what has transpired.
“Definitely not,” said Manek, who scored 21 points in the Sooners’ 81–68 home win March 5, 2019, over Kansas. “I would say I just wanted to enjoy an awesome season and experience everything and this experience is way more than me or my family have ever dreamed of.”
Manek shared an emotional moment with his family after the game.
“It was a family effort on me coming to North Carolina and they have supported it all year. They come and see me every game and it’s been awesome,” Manek said. “They’ve got to experience it with me. And for them to be here like this? It’s awesome to be on this stage in this game.”
It all came together in an hourlong Zoom meeting he and his parents had with Coach Hubert Davis. Manek knew that Walker Kessler was gone and got assurances from Davis that he would be used as a stretch-four.
“I had a couple more questions to ask him, just to make sure we were all on the same page,” Manek said of that conversation with Davis that led him to commit. “I knew what I brought to the team. I knew what I wanted, what I was looking for.”
It didn’t always look like the season would go so well.
After an easy Nov. 23 home victory over UNC Asheville, Manek was adamant that, with so many McDonald’s All-Americans, the Tar Heels should be playing better. That came days after the losses in Uncasville, Conn., to Purdue and Tennessee.
Manek was mad and he wasn’t shy about letting everybody know about it.
“We were still growing,” he said. “We’ve been growing the whole year. That was around the time we were losing games and we were playing teams close that shouldn’t even be on the court with us. It was bothering everybody. Everybody was confused.
“We knew we were better than that,” Manek said. “We’ve all really come together and played well in the last few months. And it’s awesome to see. And I’ve said many times about the games we’ve had last few weeks, we wouldn’t have won if it was November or December. We wouldn’t have even been close to winning them.”
There were more frustrating losses against Kentucky, Miami and Wake Forest, but working through those rough patches helped set up the Tar Heels for their March run.
Manek didn’t start consistently until early January. Although Davis stayed positive with him, Manek wasn’t used to coming off the bench.
“It bothered me,” Manek said of not starting. “It was one of those things that I couldn’t control. But I made the best of it and I was playing well that entire time.”
The chemistry on the court seemed to change when Dawson Garcia left the team after the 98–76 loss at Wake Forest. Manek’s playing time went up and Carolina has lost only three times since then.
“I was still doing the same things, I just was playing a little bit more,” Manek said. “I think throughout this whole year, I’ve been doing the same thing. I’ve been making shots, passing the ball, getting a few rebounds, kind of drawing the defense. Helping those other guys be more open. And I think it’s just been the same; I’ve just been playing more.”
During the first half of Carolina’s 81–77 win over No. 9 Duke in the second Saturday national semifinal, Manek was 1 of 5 from the floor and missed both of his 3-point attempts.
In addition to Caleb Love needing to come alive offensively in the second half, UNC would have had a tough time winning had Manek not notched three 3-pointers after halftime.
“They decided to faceguard me there for the first 20 minutes,” Manek said. “It gets late in the game, a lot of people get tired. I had an opportunity to get a couple of steps on them and find the open area and that led to the guys passing me the ball and trusting me to shoot it, and it helps space the floor as well.”
He showed his versatility with a team-high three blocks against the Blue Devils, including a huge one against Jeremy Roach as he was driving with Duke holding a one-point lead late in the game.
“I can jump,” Manek said. “I’ve got a lot of dunks. People underestimated me my whole life and underestimated this team. I saw Roach getting downhill. He was contested by RJ [Davis] and I just decided to jump and see what happens and I let it go, I guess.”
Manek knows that Monday is the last game of his five-year college career.
“I’m just excited to know it’s my last college game and not just play and it be my last college game,” Manek said. “I’m excited that this is the last game possible to play. So, it’s going to be a lot of fun. I haven’t really thought about that. I’ve been in college long enough.”
The fun factor and the success of the Tar Heels on Monday night go up exponentially the more often the sharpshooter from Oklahoma yells “bang, bang.”
If Manek is on target, he and his teammates might just be cutting down the nets at the Superdome.
Photo via @UNC_Basketball