Scott Fowler

UNC basketball – half serious, half ‘comedy express’ – all in for possible title

Coach Roy Williams calls his North Carolina players “idiots,” adding himself to that category as well. But he means it in only the most affectionate way.

The Tar Heels have advanced to their second straight national championship final, pulling one unlikely escape after another to get there. The freewheeling team that will face Gonzaga Monday night is a far cry emotionally from the UNC squad that lost a heartbreaker to Villanova a year ago.

That Tar Heels team, paced by Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige, was equally focused but had a more earnest persona. This one?

“The seriousness of Marcus is gone, the quietness of Brice is gone,” Williams said recently. “Now it’s Theo (Pinson) and Joel (Berry) and those guys, and I mean, it’s comedy express out there half the time. So they’re closer together – because they’re all idiots. And me with them, I guess. So it’s my kind of team.”

There are many hard things in sports, and coming back from a second-place finish to win a championship the next year is one of them. Ask the Carolina Panthers.

But the Tar Heels are on the precipice of doing just that, if they can overcome one final and formidable obstacle in Gonzaga.

Undone by a last-second shot by Villanova's Kris Jenkins a year ago – one that trumped Marcus Paige's double-clutch prayer from only seconds earlier – the Tar Heels have nearly lost on three separate occasions in this NCAA tournament yet have tight-roped their way through every time.

Pinson – the gate-crashing comic relief from last year's squad – has assumed a far bigger role as the tournament has advanced. He's still the funniest Tar Heel, but now he is one of the most essential as well. It was fitting that the ball wound up in Pinson's hands in the final second of UNC's pulsating 77-76 win over Oregon Saturday night, and as the buzzer sounded he slung the ball in the air with the fervor of the greatly relieved.

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The 2016 UNC squad was probably more talented than this one. All the key contributors on this team except for freshman Tony Bradley were there a year ago, too, as were all-stars Brice Johnson and Paige. That team was also closely knit –but probably didn't have as much fun.

“Last year Marcus was really serious,” Williams said of Paige. “Brice was really quiet, or Brice was really pouting, or whatever it was that he was doing when I was screaming at him and everything. But it was a more serious-minded team.”

It's hard to imagine that UNC team from a year ago posing in homemade hats from teammate Shea Rush, as this one does. Meeks, no longer playing second fiddle in the paint behind Johnson, has also been more open in showing a personality that can be so exuberant that Berry sometimes has to put his phone on “Do Not Disturb” because Meeks keeps blowing it up with his random musings on life.

“We spend a lot of time dancing and joking with each other and making sure we have fun,” senior guard Nate Britt said.

Every team gets motivated by something, and this one has long had a group text-message chat titled “Redemption,” referring to last year's last-second loss. That sounds like a serious theme, as does the way Pinson describes this team's motivation.

“This year we wanted to do something for ourselves,” Pinson said. “Everybody was talking about with Marcus and Brice not being here, can they do it?”

But that purposeful nature is threaded with punch lines. The Tar Heels carry video-game controllers on the road. They tease Berry, who is bothered by constant ankle problems, about how little he practices. They all had a good laugh at Williams' expense when he got hit by a kicked basketball not long ago.

Pinson is an instigator, a charismatic sort who dances first in every pregame huddle. Pinson also likes to sneak up behind Williams occasionally, so much so that Williams jokes that Pinson is exacerbating his long-standing problem with vertigo because he's always keeping his head on a swivel looking for where Pinson might be popping up next.

It's all a lot more fun when you win, of course. If the Tar Heels lose Monday night for the second straight year in the national final, there won't be a lot of laughter in the locker room.

But that laughter, coupled with a sense of resolute determination, is what has gotten this team to this point. It's a blend of seriousness and silliness, one that the Tar Heels hope they can perfect on the final night of the 2017 basketball season.