"OK guys, we've got 12 minutes, so you've got time to go ahead and get food," Roy Williams announces. It is 5:48 p.m. on Sunday night and the 2014 Tar Heels are gathered at his home to watch the NCAA Tournament selection show.
This has become an annual tradition, and the food he references is delicious. There are brownies (presumably stolen from some unsuspecting road opponents this year), ice cream, and--the head coach isn't superstitious, he's just careful--green St. Patrick's Day cupcakes.
As those 12 minutes tick away and the team gathers in the coach's den, the mood is lively. There's plenty of joking and only partial attention being paid to the analysts on television. But when CBS shows a composite "One Shining Moment" from past tournaments, a silence falls. Williams, standing closest to the television, quietly mouths the names of the Tar Heels represented--and there are several. "Coach Smith," he says softly when Dean Smith is shown. "Michael," he says as Michael Jordan strokes the winning jumper against Georgetown. "Sean," as Sean May bulldozes Illinois.
The atmosphere while watching the selection show with the Tar Heels depends on where you sit. At the front of the room, with the players, it's like being around, well, college kids. They roar at the Charles Barkley bobblehead commercial. They go back for seconds on the food.
At the back of the room, with the coaches, it's like having your own personal very smart tournament analysts. One of the earliest matchups puts Tulsa against UCLA. "There's some history there," Steve Robinson says immediately. He was the head coach at Tulsa for two seasons, and he knows instantly that the Golden Hurricane upset the Bruins in the 1994 tournament. Ten seconds later, CBS analyst Seth Davis--who has presumably seen the bracket in advance and had time to prepare—says, "There's history in that game."
The first region of 16 revealed seems to be mostly for entertainment purposes. The mood is still light. No players or coaches fill out brackets, as that job is entrusted to manager Mary Ellen Weylandt.
But as the second region of 16 is unveiled, still with no Tar Heels, there is the first slightly-joking-but-not-really "We are going to be in the tournament, right?" comment. Several people in the room expect Carolina to pop up opposite Creighton when the Bluejays are revealed as the 3 seed in the West, but the 6 seed in that region goes to Baylor.
The commercial break before the third region is spent dissecting which game sites are still possible. The consensus is that pretty much all of them except for San Diego are on the board.
As the Midwest region pops up, CBS experiences a production glitch. "And Duke is the third seed," says Greg Gumbel. But at the same time he's saying that, the words "6 UMass" are shown on the screen.
It goes quiet as everyone tries to process exactly what's happening. Marcus Paige raises his hand. "Uh, question..." he says, and the room breaks up. Wade Moody alertly follows Paige's comment by saying, "I bet you that UMass is going to be the six seed here," he says. When CBS solves their issues and shows the full bracket, with the Minutemen indeed sixth, Paige points to Moody. "Good call," the point guard acknowledges with mock respect.
But by the time 48 teams have been announced, with still no Tar Heels, there's a little bit of tension in the room. Everyone present knows Carolina is in. But 75 percent of the field is on record, and it's a little unnerving to still be uncertain. In the commercial break before the final region, almost everyone in Williams' den becomes a bracketologist. Every one of the possible top six seeds in the region is batted around, along with the remaining possible locations (it's Buffalo, Spokane or San Antonio, since everyone realizes Virginia is going to Raleigh) and possible seeding combinations. In the span of about 15 seconds, the Tar Heels are matched up against three different opponents.
After the commercial, CBS works up the bottom half of the bracket, which means 14 seed North Carolina Central is shown before the Tar Heels. As Gumbel says, "North Carolina..." Joel James lets out one brief clap before realizing it's the wrong North Carolina. It's hard to hide a seven-footer's clap, and he gets some quick grief, but soon "North Carolina" is on the screen, and everyone in the room is standing and cheering.
It's a little exhilarating to be in the room as a season-long goal is reached. At that exact moment, there's no talk of Cinderella, no upset specials, no matchups—just pure happiness at being in the field.
It lasts about five seconds.
Williams turns off the television after the analysts review the East. The first 30 minutes of the gathering felt like a Super Bowl party. Now, the mood shifts, and it feels more like a business meeting.
As Williams addresses the team for the last time before they officially begin NCAA Tournament preparation, he hits some of the same notes you've heard from him all season. He reminds them a better sense of urgency is needed. He mentions big wins over Louisville, Michigan State and Kentucky. He also points out there are still three days until the team departs, and says, "Bust your tail on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday in the classroom."
Williams closes with a story about the 1991 Kansas Jayhawks, who entered the NCAA Tournament as a three seed, having lost two of their last three. "One of my players, named Mark Randall, said in the locker room after we lost in the conference tournament that if our team got its head on straight, we had a chance to play for a long time," Williams tells his team. "We went all the way to the national championship game. He was right, we played for a long time. This team can do that same thing."
It is completely silent in Williams' den. No one chews a brownie. No one rustles the new "Chapel Skill" shirts the players are wearing.
"It really does hit you at that point," Marcus Paige says later. "It hits home that these are the games and the days we're going to remember for the rest of our lives, and we have to keep that in mind as we try to get better this week."
The Tar Heels will be dismissed with a reminder about tomorrow's weight session and practice. In a couple minutes, the coaches will gather in Williams' living room and begin an initial brainstorming session on opponents and logistics.
Before he breaks up the team gathering, the head coach has one final thought.
"We've been to San Antonio and played before," he says. "I'm ready to go to San Antonio and this time, I'm ready to play great."
Adam Lucas is the editor of CAROLINA.