USA TODAY Sports’ Nicole Auerbach breaks down what you need to know ahead of the NCAA tournament’s second weekend.
USA TODAY Sports
GREENVILLE, S.C. — Transience defines much of the current era of college basketball, be it the one-and-done talents and their pit stops at various programs or the hundreds of Division I transfers that swap uniforms each offseason.
Except at North Carolina.
The Tar Heels haven’t had a player transfer out since February 2011 — an eternity in this day and age; there were more than 700 transfers last year — and that’s even despite the cloud of an NCAA investigation into academic impropriety across the entire athletic department. They’re one of just three teams participating in this year’s NCAA tournament that haven’t lost a player via transfer in the past two offseasons. The others were Maryland and Princeton, each of which lost in the first round. (Only three other Division I schools — out of 351 — total could make this claim to fame this past season, by the way: Temple, Furman and William and Mary.)
Part of the trend stems from North Carolina coach Roy Williams setting realistic expectations for the players he recruits.
“There was a meeting one time with Dean Smith, recruiting Michael Jordan,” Williams told USA TODAY Sports. “He said, ‘You’re going to have a great opportunity (to play).’ So I said, if that’s the case, then I’m never going to tell anybody they’ll get to start.
“We do try to be honest, and that’s not saying that other people are dishonest. But we tell them, ‘This is your chance, you’ll have a great opportunity. If you do your job, you’ll play. If somebody else beats you out, you’ll have to keep working every day until you beat him out.’ With kids, it’s a different culture these days. But I think some kids like that old-school approach, with us being straight-forward about it.”
It should come as no surprise, too, that North Carolina has found a great deal of success during its stretch of continuity amid some sport-wide instability. They’ve made an NCAA title game appearance, two Elite Eights and two Sweet 16s (and counting). The Tar Heels have won the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season title four times and have finished no worse than fifth in the league in that span. They’ve had veteran teams, because, well, most players have stayed until they were upperclassmen — and the ones who left early left to go pro, not to go elsewhere.
Many of the integral pieces of this year’s team — which earned the No. 1 seed in the South region, and will face No. 4 Butler in the Sweet 16 on Friday in Memphis — have worked hard to increase their value to their team over the course of their careers. All five starters have steadily increased their minutes, and/or contributions, year by year. Not one, frustrated by not starting or not getting enough buckets earlier in his career, left Chapel Hill.
USA Today Sports’ Nicole Auerbach breaks down how these surprise Sweet 16 squads have made it this far in March Madness.
USA TODAY Sports
These players stand in stark contrast to some of their peers, who seek immediate gratification and the fastest possible path to professional basketball. And there are plenty of those with that me-first mentality in this sport.
“You know there’s going to be a lot of talent before and after you when you commit here,” said senior guard Nate Britt, who comes off the bench now. “It’s a question mark of how things will go. I don’t think any player knows what the future holds for them (in terms of minutes) when you come here.
“Most people come to the school for the tradition, and for being part of something that’s bigger than you. We recruit well and have a lot of guys who are extremely talented — guys who don’t start or barely play could go to a lot of others schools in the nation and have a bigger role.
“People here are here to win. If guys were that selfish or solely focused on themselves like that, they wouldn’t have come to Carolina. Making that commitment to go to school here is wanting to be part of the family. If you’re not in the role you want or think things could be better, I don’t even think most guys think about transferring as an option.”
BRACKET: Track the tournament
Said junior Theo Pinson, who now starts: “The proof is in the pudding — you get better here. You know your time is coming. You will win. It’s not a rush at all.
“It’s the reason you come here. I came here to compete for national championships. Of course, averaging 30 points would be nice, but at the same time, losing is not fun.”
Pinson pointed to the fact that so many former players choose to come back to Chapel Hill each summer, all the pros that still want to be part of the UNC atmosphere and be around the coaching staff. That, to him, shows what’s special about this place and why players don’t simply leave when things get tough.
A good example of this is the NCAA investigation, which is a tough thing that has been used against UNC in recruiting, and the threat of sanctions or a postseason would be a valid reason for a current player to use to leave. But the latter hasn’t happened.
USA Today Sports’ Nicole Auerbach thinks you’ll be seeing these Sweet 16 stars taking their game to the next level in the NBA.
USA TODAY Sports
“It’s satisfying,” Williams said. “It’s very much appreciated, because what those kids did — they believed in me, they trusted me. And we had other people, even back to Justin (Jackson) and Theo and Joel (Berry), we had people telling them that you’ll never go to a NCAA tournament in your career if you go to North Carolina. And that’s just gotten accentuated even more, after every year since then.
“But even though everybody on our team was told that, it’s never been a problem.”
It’s also never happened. This group of seniors, for example, rewarded for staying amid multiple investigations and NCAA Notices of Allegations, is about to play in its third consecutive Sweet 16, with the ultimate goal of avenging last year’s national championship game loss.
Which, by the way, is exactly what these players came here to compete for.
MEET THE SWEET 16 TEAMS