By Turner Walston
"Oh yeah," Meeks said, turning back to his interviewer. "Never mind. I can't tell you that." He grinned. "We can't tell you that."
In the end, it doesn't matter what they were laughing about, not really. It matters that they were laughing at all. Williams often talks about the fun of the NCAA Tournament. The veterans on this team point to last year's championship game run as the most enjoyable part of the season. And here they are again, looking to enjoy the ride. But how to balance that piece of it, the fun of it, with the business at hand, the task of winning six games?
"It can be tough," said senior guard Nate Britt, "but I think for the most part, when our guys are on the court, we're focused, because we didn't finish last year the way we wanted to, so I think every time we step on the court, we're focused. Off the court, we have as much fun as we can."
Ah, last year. I don't have to remind you how last year ended. What I might have to remind you of is how much fun it was along the way. Winning in Cameron to seal the regular season ACC title. Taking the conference tournament championship in D.C. Running through Raleigh and Philadelphia on the way to Houston. Marcus Paige's brilliant shot. The finish was bitter, but the process was sweet. And so last year is doubly motivating. "It's motivation for [the finish], and it's motivation because what we did last year was great," Williams said earlier this week. "Everybody in the country would have loved to have done what we did last year. There was only one team that enjoyed it more than we did. So I think just for me, talking to the kids and reminding them how much fun it was last year, let's try to do that again."
Carolina certainly has the personnel to do that again, the number one seed, and the path. Should the Tar Heels win Sunday's match-up with Arkansas, they'll advance to the Round of 16 in Memphis. Carolina and the Razorbacks meet Sunday for the sixth time in the NCAA Tournament (the Tar Heels are 3-2 against Arkansas here) and for the third time in the second round since 2008. Arkansas defeated Seton Hall on Friday for the right to be here, and the Razorbacks present a formidable challenge.
With that game ahead of them, the Tar Heels hit the practice floor Saturday afternoon. But there is plenty of down time on an off day in Greenville, South Carolina, and there is ample –and necessary– opportunity to get away from the game. "This is the best part of the year," Justin Jackson said. "Especially for us right now, being on spring break. All we do is lay around and watch basketball games, hang out and talk. Plus, my family's coming in soon, so I'll be able to hang out with them. There's kind of a balance of enjoying life and keeping your head off the game, and then also staying locked in. I think this time of year is the perfect time for that."
"For me, it's usually just laying down in the room, just chilling," said Isaiah Hicks. "Playing games on my phone, texting, taking naps, watching TV. It's pretty simple."
Jackson had a book in his locker, Trip Lee's Rise: Get Up and Live in God's Great Story, that he said helped him get away from the game and focus on personal development. "There's so much pressure on us," he said. "So much, 'You've got to be focused, you've got to be focused,' but you can't over-stress yourself. And for me, reading a book or watching basketball, that just lets me, kind of, live."
They say March is a brotherhood, and it is for men's college basketball student-athletes competing in the NCAA Tournament. They travel together, play together, laugh together. It's important to maintain that balance, as one informs the other. Play well and win, and life off the court is great. Laugh with your teammates off the court, and you'll be better prepared to mesh with them on it. Fun off the court can translate into fun on it, and winning is fun.
"You've got to enjoy this process," Joel Berry said. "When you look back on it when you leave college, you've got to be able to say, 'I had a lot of fun doing what I did,' and that's what this team is like, and we just want to be able to enjoy it and not put so much pressure on ourselves because everybody else wants us to win the national championship. If we continue just to do what we do as a team and focus on what's going on on the inside and have fun, we'll be just fine."
"I think we do a great job of balancing it," Meeks said. "As we keep progressing through the tournament, the more serious it gets. They named our group chat 'Redemption,' so that's our main goal, to definitely get it done on the last Monday."
And getting there sometimes means laughing on the bench, even if you can't tell anyone what it was about.