Marilyn Payne

Tar Heels hope for second chance at title in 2017 tourney

Posted March 16

— Only one team enjoyed the last postseason more, and longer, than Roy Williams' team did, but no team had to lose with stakes as high as North Carolina did to end last season either.

Those two ways to look at the final moments of 2016 motivate the 2017 Tar Heels entering this season's NCAA Tournament.

"The way that last year ended, meaning the final shot that we lost the national championship game, I'm hoping that motivated them," WIlliams said. "We talked about it, providing some motivation to fuel to work extremely hard in the offseason. Then when practice started, I said, it's motivation for that reason and it's motivation because what we did last year was great.

"I do try to remind them how much fun we had last year also, not just the hurt of the last shot."

What UNC did last year -- or, what Villanova did to UNC last year -- was also the opposite of great, in the heart-wrenching, teary-eyed time after the Wildcats locked down the title.

"I don't want anybody on this team to feel the way that we did," senior Kennedy Meeks said. "It pops up a lot because you don't want to get to that point and you want to avoid that the best way you can."

On the eve of the 2017 First Round, North Carolina is playing to both avoid the bad and extend the great as far as it can be extended: the 2017 Tar Heels are playing for redemption.

Since last summer, the players on the team have communicated in a roster-inclusive group message labeled, "Redemption." That's how on the minds of the team Kris Jenkins' last shot is.

The conversation ranges from basketball-related topics to whatever any teammate wants to discuss.

"You never know, dealing with us," Theo Pinson said.

If Isaiah Hicks chimes in, "you know it's serious," as he never really responds. Tony Bradley is near-silent, too, while Meeks is the opposite.

"I do tend to be the only one talking to myself sometimes, it takes a couple minutes to reply," he said.

Regardless of who is or isn't responding, the conversation is all being had in the literal name of redemption, and the same is true for all the team's efforts this year.

Hall of Fame coach Williams says every leader of a top-seeded team "worries like the Dickens about," becoming the first first-round squad to fall to a No. 16 team. Ahead of Chapel Hill's team's meeting with SWAC Champion Texas Southern (23-11, 16-2), it is the daunting loss that must happen once a year -- the one in the national final -- that his players seem most concerned with avenging.

The Tar Heel underclassmen are better prepared, Meeks believes and the other veterans echo. The freshmen and sophomores on this roster spend more "off," time in the gym than last season's youngins did and are more attentive to scouting reports. The returning players have set the standard for the team -- after last season, UNC is "more attentive," overall, Theo Pinson explains.

"It's an overall theme, just the fact that we've been here before," he said. "You understand situations, time and score a little bit better in the tournament. We'll be a little bit more used to that than we were last year in the tournament. We were all new to getting that far."

After losing in the ACC Tournament Semifinal last Friday, UNC also starts the NCAA Tournament with an added edge and a fresh reminder for the Tar Heels to do what works, to adjust better in-game and to play to strengths.

Justin Jackson met with Williams, seeking advice and also receiving affirmation of confidence, after a four-game long shooting slump ahead of the trip to Greenville, SC. There is no change is method, routine or technique for the ACC Player of the Year even with the extra time spent shooting in the past week.

It is understood that Joel Berry's shots falling help the ACC Regular Season Champions avoid losses -- but that, too, is a given that doesn't alter anything the team is doing... even given the junior's rough points in the season.

UNC's loss to Duke in its last game reminded the big men on the team that opponents see the post game, and inside-outside threat, as a make-or-break part of Carolina's play.

"It was frustrating for a lot of us, they switched the defense up on the post guys and we didn't adjust," Meeks said. "As the big men, collectively, we have to do a better job of communicating that way to help us get the ball inside out."

All of the x's and o's -- which the Tar Heels realize have more surprise in a national tournament against new opponents than they had against familiar ACC foe -- have a higher premium and correcting mistakes is done with all of the "what-ifs," from last season in mind.

North Carolina will never get the last 4.7 seconds from last season back, but this season's team knows it doesn't need to.

"At the end of the day," Hicks said.  "This is our second chance right here."

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