By Adam Lucas
There were two big cheers in Roy Williams’ den on Sunday evening.
That’s where the 2017 Tar Heels gathered to watch the NCAA Tournament selection show at 5:30 p.m. A murmur came when Duke was announced as the No. 2 seed in the East region. The players aren’t bracketologists, but they pay close enough attention to know that if Duke was a two, odds were that Carolina was a one seed somewhere.
Their suspicions were confirmed a few minutes later, as the Tar Heels were announced as the number one seed in the South region, leading to the first big roar.
And the second? That came after all 68 teams had been revealed, and Williams had muted the television to address his team. After discussing a few logistics, the coach told his players they would go to class on Wednesday and then depart for Greenville.
Justin Jackson raised his hand. “Coach,” he said, “it’s spring break.” And that might have been the biggest cheer of all, as players and their head coach alike celebrated a week completely devoted to basketball at one of the best times of year in the sport.
That was the culmination of roughly an hour at Williams’ home, which began—as it does every year—with ice cream. Players ringed the television, outfitted in their new Jordan brand “Winner Stays” t-shirts. Everyone, at this point, is an expert. Every player had an opinion about who would make the field and who might miss it, and everyone knew one of the biggest storylines of Selection Sunday was whether they would receive a top regional seed for the seventh time in Williams’ 14 years as the Carolina coach.
CBS analyst Steve Lappas wasn’t especially well-known in the room, but as soon as he projected the Tar Heels as a top seed on the pre-show, he was one of the most respected basketball minds in the nation. “I told you he was smart,” Jackson said. “He should still be coaching.”
Of course, it didn’t take long into the selection show before Kris Jenkins’ shot was on the television, leading to the expected silence and painful winces. “You knew that was coming,” Kenny Williams said.
The ever-prepared team managers had printed brackets for anyone who wanted to fill it out as the pairings were announced, and players offered occasional analysis on specific matchups. Stilman White correctly projected that UNC-Wilmington would be paired opposite Virginia, and then Theo Pinson offered, “That’s two very different styles right there,” on the Cavaliers-Seahawks game.
After a loud celebration when Carolina popped onto the screen—it seems like a generation ago now that Roy Williams was befuddled when his first UNC team sat mostly silent when they appeared in the bracket for the first time in three years in 2004—players mostly watched the South Regional bracket announcement in silence, and had little response to the analyst predictions of UCLA and Kentucky being the teams to watch in the South.
The team watched the rest of the bracket reveal, with the head coach usually serving as the on-site analyst. As the final blank lines went on the screen, players asked him, “Is Syracuse going to make it, Coach?” The Orange didn’t, of course, and by the time Xavier popped up as the final team in the field, the assistant coaches were already trying to divide scouting responsibilities for the three possible opponents in Greenville.
Williams gave his team a simple message after the full field was announced (and spring break was confirmed). “I stood here in August, and I told you there was a team in this room good enough to win a national championship,” he said. “I believe that in my body and soul.”
It was a chill-inducing moment, even for the players.
“He knows what he’s talking about,” said senior Isaiah Hicks. “When a Hall of Fame coach tells you that, you sit there and you think, ‘We really have a chance to do this.’ Now, as players, we actually have to do it. With his guidance, we can be there.”
Williams dismissed his players while the coaches stayed behind to plan the logistics of the week, the practice plans and points of emphasis that will be made before Friday’s game (tip-off time to be announced later tonight, most likely) against Texas Southern. Before the players left, though, he gave them one final reminder.
“The real fun,” Roy Williams told his team, “begins now.”