Journey to the Tourney: UNC's March Madness history
In moments Roy Williams is as much a history teacher as he is a basketball coach, turning to the past to provide his players guidance in the present. And so it was, again, after North Carolina’s defeat against Duke last Friday in the ACC tournament semifinals.
Williams can usually find a story from the past to fit any situation, and it didn’t take long for him to find a parallel between the Tar Heels of the present and the ones that won national championships in 2005 and 2009. Those teams, after all, had been here, too.
UNC in 2009 and 2005 lost in the ACC tournament semifinals. Then those teams went on to win the national championship. Williams has made sure, again and again, that his players understand that what happened then could happen again.
“Oh yeah,” Joel Berry, the Tar Heels’ junior point guard, said on Tuesday when asked how often he’d heard about that piece of UNC basketball history. “He explained that to us after we lost against Duke, and he explained it to us when we went to his house to watch the selection show.”
During that Sunday afternoon gathering, the Tar Heels learned they’d be a No. 1 seed, after all. That accomplishment helped soften the blow of losing against Duke, which overcame a pair of 13-point deficits and turned the game on a frenetic run during the final 10 minutes.
Afterward, in the locker room, the Tar Heels took the defeat hard while they quietly packed their things. Joel Berry, the junior point guard, lamented the foul trouble that forced him to sit out during a critical 10-minute stretch in the second half, when Duke was most potent.
Kennedy Meeks, the senior forward, tried to explain why, after playing so well early, he faded late. And Justin Jackson, the junior wing forward who earned ACC Player of the Year honors, said over and over again that he needed to play better, that he accepted blame for the defeat.
Since then, though, the loss has provided an opportunity to refocus. A small victory came on Sunday during the selection show, when the Tar Heels watched themselves appear on a television screen with a “No. 1” beside their name.
“You’ve got to keep a smile on your face, because we still accomplished some great things,” Meeks said on Tuesday, “and we’re a No. 1 seed.”
Resetting the attitude has been important in some respects, though, because the defeat against Duke took a mental toll. Williams acknowledged on Tuesday that he kept Berry on the bench as long as he did last Friday because Berry was angered by his foul trouble.
Then there was Jackson, who ended the loss against Duke having missed 40 of his past 60 shots from the field. Williams said he and Jackson met on Monday – a meeting in which Williams tried to help Jackson rediscover the mentality that guided him through the first 30 games of the season.
In that way, at least, there are some small similarities between this UNC team and the ones from 2005 and 2009. Those teams were trying to repair themselves physically, amid injuries, and this one is attempting to repair itself mentally entering the NCAA tournament.
When UNC lost in the ACC tournament semifinals in 2005, the Tar Heels didn’t have full use of Rashad McCants, one of the team’s best players. In 2009, when UNC lost in the semifinals against Florida State, starting point guard Ty Lawson sat out with an injury.
“And so you always had that little, ‘Well, we’ve got something else that will help us,’ ” Williams said. “This year we had everybody, we just didn’t play well.
“I was mad about the way we played. We came back here on Saturday and got off the bus and went in the locker room and watched tape for two hours.”
In the span of a few seconds in one of of his answers on Tuesday, Williams used the word “refocus,” or a variation of it, three times. That’s the priority now, as it was at this point in 2005 and 2009.
Indeed, Williams has reminded his players of what happened those years. They know. They’re well aware that UNC’s past two national championship teams also lost in the ACC tournament semifinals.
Even so, Meeks said, “that’s what they did. We can’t depend on what they did and use it now.”
UNC traveled to Brooklyn last week hoping to repeat as ACC tournament champions. Now the Tar Heels are seeking to repeat a different kind of history in the NCAA tournament.
UNC vs. Texas Southern
NCAA tournament Round of 64
When: 4 p.m. Friday
Where: Greenville. S.C.