UNC Mens Basketball News

Meeks, Jackson declare for NBA draft, don’t hire agents

CHAPEL HILL — Justin Jackson and Kennedy Meeks will enter the NBA draft but not hire agents, North Carolina announced Friday afternoon.

“Justin and Kennedy have our complete support in taking this step,” head coach Roy Williams said in a release.” Any player who is thinking about playing in the NBA next season should gather as much information as they can about their possible draft position. We will continue to support and assist them over the next month to obtain the information that will help them decide whether they should remain in the draft or return to UNC next season.”

The pair, who were regular starters on last year’s team, had until April 24 to declare for the draft, and they can withdraw their names by May 25 and return to school if they haven’t hired agents. By declaring for the draft, the two are eligible to be part of the 70 players invited to the NBA Combine, held in Chicago May 10-15.

Point guard Joel Berry II and forward Isaiah Hicks are not declaring for the NBA draft, according to a report by Inside Carolina.

Williams predicted that at least a couple of his players would test draft waters in his season-wrap up press conference last week.

“I think that some of our guys will try to go to the combine, will declare and not hire an agent, and see how they play in the combine,” Williams said. “And I have no problem with that.

“If I were the father of some of our players, I’d get them to do the same thing.”

Jackson, a forward/guard hybrid, averaged 12.2 points and 3.9 rebounds in his sophomore campaign while Meeks put up 9.2 points and 5.9 rebounds per game during his junior year.

Paige gets Iowa homecoming

DURHAM — Marcus Paige finally got a homecoming game after all.

It might be called the Carolina ACC Barnstorming Tour, but Friday, the group of ACC senior all-stars left the state for a quick trip to Marion, Iowa to play at Linn-Mar high school, Paige’s alma mater, Saturday.

“I think they mentioned it to me at the beginning of the year,” Paige said after a barnstorming stop at Durham’s Northern High School. “I was like, ‘that sounds like a good idea,’ and then I kind of forgot about it until the schedule came out and my high school was on there. I was like, cool. I was pretty excited about it.”

North Carolina coach Roy Williams tried to give Paige a homecoming game during the season when he scheduled a trip to Cedar Falls, Iowa to play Northern Iowa Nov. 22, 2015. But when Paige broke his right hand in an early November practice, he was sidelined for a month and missed his chance to play in front of a hometown crowd.

Thanks to an uncharacteristic trip outside state lines with the barnstorming tour — an ACC tradition that originated in North Carolina 37 years ago — Paige has another chance to not only play in Iowa, but to play in his old gym for the first time since he wrapped up his senior season four years ago.

“I’m just happy I get to go home and see my family, see my dogs,” Paige said.

Paige, Brice Johnson, Joel James, Tony Ebunga, Spenser Dalton and Justin Coleman have played with the group of seniors from UNC, Duke, N.C. State and Wake Forest coached by Phil Ford who are stopping at nine North Carolina high schools.

Every player doesn’t travel to every stop, but all six Tar Heels played against a group of locals in front of a very pro-UNC crowd in Durham last week.

“There’s a lot of support,” Paige said. “We’ve been to some towns and stuff and seen a lot of people who might not get a chance to come to a game. So Tar Heel nation is out here, and it’s very fun to see everyone and travel the state, especially because I’m not from here.”

After five stops in places like Rockingham and Ronda, Paige got a chance to not only go back to his home state, but also act as a tour guide for a couple of his former UNC teammates who had never been to Iowa.

“It’s too far away, none of them will come all the way to Iowa,” Paige said. “It’s hard to convince someone to come to Iowa. It’s not necessarily a tourist location or anything like that. It’s not a tropical climate, but it’s a good place and I’m happy they’re coming with me this time.”

Williams wraps up the season

CHAPEL HILL — When Roy Williams called a press conference Tuesday afternoon, he wanted to wrap up a few loose ends, and he wanted to set the record straight.

“Steve (Kirschner) thinks I’m wacko for agreeing to do this,” Williams said. “One of the reasons I wanted to do it was to bring closure to it. The other reason is we had a team meeting on Wednesday of last week, and I didn’t jump on him, but I disagreed with Isaiah. He took way too much responsibility for that shot. That shot was against North Carolina’s team.”

On April 4, a buzzer-beating shot by Kris Jenkins handed North Carolina a 3-point loss in the national championship, and on April 6, Williams wanted to talk about it with his team.

In the aftermath of the loss, Isaiah Hicks told reporters in the locker room that it was his fault Jenkins hit the shot, that he didn’t close out fast enough or defend the shot effectively.

But, Williams said, that wasn’t the case, and he called the team meeting the day after arriving back from Houston to make sure Hicks knew that he wasn’t to blame for the loss.

“He took way too much responsibility for that shot,” Williams said. “That shot was against North Carolina’s team. I was grading the film, and I gave Isaiah two good defenses during that one possession. Then I read these comments like, ‘I should’ve gotten up there’ and ‘he was my guy.’ It was North Carolina as a team.

“But Isaiah, it was not his man. But he was willing to take that responsibility. He did. If you watch it on tape, he challenged it a lot better than I thought he did. If you look at it in still pictures, it’s not as good a challenge. If you watch it on tape, he did challenge it.”

And, Williams acknowledged, even with a defender in Jenkins’ grill, he still could’ve hit that shot to win the game.

“We just didn’t get to Kris as closely as I would’ve wanted,” Williams said. “And you know what? We may have played great defense and he still would’ve made the shot. It was, As soon as he went up to shoot it, I knew it was going in. I didn’t even follow it, I knew it was going in.

“It was a great moment for him. But I don’t anybody thinking Isaiah screwed it up because he didn’t.”

ICYMI: Williams isn’t retiring this summer

To squelch any shred of lingering doubt, Williams confirmed again that the outcome of last week’s national championship game had zero influence over his retirement timeline.

“If I were going to quit,” Williams said, “I sure as the dickens wouldn’t have seen four (recruits) in an 18-hour period last Thursday and Friday.”

Williams frequently answered questions about his retirement throughout the season and the NCAA Tournament, with his frustration on the topic coming to a head at the Final Four when he got the question a couple times.

When asked to revisit those questions and the impact of the national title game on his longevity at UNC, Williams refrained that he wasn’t retiring any time soon.

“I don’t know what else I can say,” Williams said. “I mean, that (Villanova) game will have nothing do to with what Roy Williams does with the rest of his life.

“I’ve changed: I guess for four years I said I wanted to coach six to 10 more years. And I thought it was silly to say that four years ago and still say it, so I went down one. I’ve said I hope I can coach five to nine more years. That’s what I said in a home (recruiting visit) last week. And so that’s all I can say.”

NBA decisions coming next week

Williams said he expects a decision from his players on testing NBA draft waters next week.
He’s meeting with his team individually over the next couple of days and will continue to advise them before getting a concrete answer on their futures next week.

“I’ve met yesterday, today and tomorrow with our players,” Williams said. “There will be some of those players, where I’m not asking them to give me a definitive answer now, I want a definitive answer next week, but I think that some of our guys will try to go to the combine, will declare and not hire an agent, and see how they play in the combine, and I have no problem with that.

“If I were the father of some of our players, I’d get them to do the same thing. We’re not going to have a release today that says ‘Joe Blow’s going,’ and then tomorrow, [another player], and then the next day Henry’s going and anything like that. When we get through with all the interviews, we’ll make one announcement.”

Under new rules, college players can declare for the draft and go through the NBA combine, but retain collegiate eligibility if they don’t hire an agent and remove their names within 10 days after the combine, which falls on May 25 this year.
“I don’t see any reason, unless you play two minutes a game, I don’t think it’s necessary to do that,” Williams said, “but if you’re a good college player, why would you not?

Williams believes, if conducted honestly, the new process will allow players to get better information before deciding their futures.

“I think this should be better especially if the NBA does what they say they’re going to do,” he said. “If they’ll really be straightforward and honest with the kids, you’ll be top-30, you’ll be top-60 or whatever. In the past, I’ve had some players and, ‘I’ll say this is not a good decision. You’re last of the second round or won’t be drafted.’ But agents got to the parents and said, ‘oh we can move him up to the first round.’

“If the NBA says, and if they’ll be truthful, I think it’ll be great. I don’t see any problems with it whatsoever. I’ve never been against it. I just want guys to go that will be first round pick, where they’ve got guaranteed money.”

A basketball atmosphere in a football stadium

HOUSTON — I didn’t think watching college basketball in a football mega-arena would be memorable — at least not in the way I wanted it to be.

In a giant, cavernous building with more bad seats than good seats, how could there be any kind of electric atmosphere?

Much like the city of Houston and the entire state of Texas, the NRG Center is a sprawling structure. It wasn’t intended for basketball, and yet, that’s just where 74,340 people saw one of the most incredible game-winners in the history of the NCAA Tournament.

I knew no matter who played or what happened, covering a national championship would be an indescribable experience.

But in such a large, cold venue, I didn’t think I’d find half the atmosphere that I’ve felt sitting courtside at Cameron Indoor or in the auxiliary press seating at Michigan State’s Breslin Center or on top of the risers in the Smith Center.

No way could a building that impersonal foster that kind of relationship between the fans, the players and the game.

But from the minute the first note of the hair-raising national anthem was sung and the paratroopers from Afterburner Inc. rappelled down ropes hanging above the baseline and the indoor fireworks went off, I knew I was wrong.

It was a setting far from intimate but every time UNC hit a 3-pointer or Villanova pounded in another shot, the crowd roared and you couldn’t help but get enveloped in sound.

My seat in the end zone of the football field was securely bolted down to the ground, and yet, as Villanova went up by double-digits in the second half, it shook with the jumping and the screaming of everyone around me.

Before the game started, I complained that my vantage point of more than 100 feet from behind the baseline and past the rows of Carolina blue-clad students would keep me from feeling involved in the game, that I would miss everything happening on the court.

And sure, sometimes I couldn’t see who got the rebound on the far end of the floor, but I was fully engulfed in every single second played Monday night.

A lot of things are described as jaw-dropping.

Jaw-droppingly large prices, a jaw-droppingly large engagement ring, jaw dropping finishes.

I didn’t realize how often that phrase is misused and overstated until I experienced the first truly jaw dropping moment of my life, when my mouth reflexively opened and my jaw locked into place.

That happened with 4.7 seconds left.

4.2 seconds later, the second jaw-dropping moment of my life happened.

I couldn’t think. The confetti burst from the sky and the fireworks went off before I could even process what had just happened.

Seconds earlier I was preparing for overtime, hastily rewriting one of the three drafts I had prepared for a buzzer game story and drafting a snarky tweet about one more tipoff to this college basketball season.

Then, it was over.

The finality of the moment seemed impossible, unfathomable. For a minute, the score hadn’t been updated and I thought that maybe it hadn’t happened. Maybe we would get five more minutes in this season.

But as the players dog-piled Kris Jenkins and the Tar Heels walked slowly back to the sideline, I knew it was really over.

I couldn’t have asked for a better ending to my first national championship game, the perfectly improbable ending to a chaotically unpredictable month.

And now, if anyone needs me, I’ll be napping for the next week.

North Carolina comes up a ‘half-step’ short in national title game

HOUSTON — For the last time in his career, Marcus Paige walked through the North Carolina locker room, still wearing his white No. 5 uniform.

As he walked, the cameras followed in a silent procession, cutting through a room that was void of the carefree laughter that filled it just a day earlier.

Most players sat alone in the aftermath of the 77-74 national championship loss to No. 2-seed Villanova, towels draped around their necks or over their heads, blank stares on their faces and eyes still bloodshot. The players who weren’t left alone spoke in uneven sentences, about the improbability of the last possession, the brotherhood from this season that would never be recreated and the love between them and their coach.

As Paige sat down in a lone metal folding chair in the back of the locker room, a massive banner of he and his teammates grinning broadly wearing Final Four hats, celebrating the East Regional championship hung to his left.

He sat down in the seat, breathing hard, pulling at the ends of the towel around his neck.

In that moment, he wasn’t gasping for air because he was out of breath, but because he was out of time.

4.7 seconds before Kris Jenkins’ shot dropped through the net and the confetti fell, Paige thought he had given himself more time. On a night when so many of UNC’s simple shots didn’t fall, a circus shot — a double-pump 3-pointer — tied the national championship and gave Paige a program record 39 career NCAA Tournament 3-pointers.

“I don’t know that I’ve ever had anybody make a tougher shot than Marcus Paige made,” coach Roy Williams said.

The crowd roared. Jaws dropped. Small seat cushions distributed to most of the 74,340 fans flew in the air.

“You’re so close to that moment,” Paige said. “You’re 4.7 seconds away from winning the game because I told the team we were going to win if we got to overtime. All we had to do was get to overtime and the game was ours, and I truly believe that and I think our whole team believes that.”

Amid the chaos, Williams called a timeout to discuss the final 4.7 seconds.

A player does mental math when that kind of thing happens. Only so many dribbles, passes and shots can happen in such a short amount of time. And the odds that those maneuvers change the outcome of the game? Often slim.

“You have a mental clock in your head as Ryan (Arcidiacono) is bringing the ball up the court,” Paige said. “You kind of know. You get caught watching the ball. I think that happened to a couple of us, hoping the clock would run out instead of defending to the end.”

So the Tar Heels (33-7) did the calculations and hoped. Hoped that by Kris Jenkins inbounding the ball, he wouldn’t have time to find a shot. Hoped that by denying deep, UNC could hang on for a fresh clock, an even score and a sixth national championship.

Even without scoring a single transition point, the Tar Heels had erased a 10-point deficit, thanks in large part to two late, improbable shots by Paige. It was fate, it had to have been. A few more seconds would lead to a few more minutes and then they would be cutting down nets.

But their mental math didn’t add up the way they thought.

With 255 made 3-pointers this season, there was no way Jenkins wasn’t taking that shot.

Standing on the sideline, Theo Pinson saw it before it happened, and he tried to yell.

“I had a feeling when Kris was taking the ball out,” Pinson said. “And I was yelling it but I had to stop because they weren’t listening so I just let it play out. That was a great shot by Kris.”

“Good play. Trail man. He let it go.”

When the ball found Jenkins (14 points) to the right of the top of the key, a bad feeling washed over Paige.

A couple of breaths earlier, Paige was on the right side of history — the side of history that kids dream about in front of driveway basketball goals in Marion, Iowa.

But as Arcidiacono tossed the ball backwards to the trailing Jenkins, who pulled up for the shot a second before Isaiah Hicks got in his face, that dream was yanked away just as fast as it materialized.

“As soon as he got it off, all you can do is pray when the ball is in the air,” Paige said. “It felt like it was in the air forever. He just knocked it down and the fireworks go off right then and the moment that you had been clawing for, fighting every day for, hoping for, dreaming about, just goes away that fast.”

Before the points were even on the scoreboard, the indoor fireworks shot off and the Villanova players rushed onto the court as the Tar Heels slumped in disbelief.

Seconds earlier, UNC fans had been throwing orange seat cushions in the air in jubilation. But almost as soon as the last North Carolina-thrown cushion hit the ground, another wave of exuberant tosses exploded through the arena as Villanova fans filled the air with their own cushions, celebrating their first national championship since 1985.

With one 3-point shot, Jenkins fractured a dream that felt only a few minutes away from fulfillment. A group so close to adding their names to the annals of Tobacco Road basketball royalty in front of more than 50 former Tar Heels, instead left the program’s first national title game in six years empty handed.

“Sean (May) and Bobby Frasor talked about getting a seat at the table at Carolina,” Paige said. “There’s only five seats at that table with 57, 82, 93, 2005, 2009. We had a chair pulled all the way to that table and we just couldn’t quite get there.

“It’s something that’ll probably haunt me for the rest of my life. And I’m sure a lot of the guys in here are thinking about what if or what could we have done. But at the same time, we’re definitely going to have a deep appreciation for the run we had and how great of a team we were this year.”

After four years, 141 games and 1,844 points, Paige walked off the court without realizing his ultimate goal. His final season was remarkable as he came back from a broken wrist and a shooting slump to lead his team all the way to the national championship game.

And yet, despite all his success, Paige still fell 4.7 seconds short of ending his career the only way that he felt he could.

“At some point tonight, I’ll have to take this jersey off and I’ll never get to be a Tar Heel again in the moment,” Paige said. “But this group had so much fun. From locker rooms to bus trips to hotels. We really enjoyed coming to practice every day. Being ourselves. Being that loose group, having fun. And just being who we were.

“That’s done. That’s over. We’ll never get that back. The memory now we’ll have is one half-step shorter than the memory we wanted to have.”

North Carolina, Villanova fans react to National Championship

Chapel Hill — It doesn’t get much more exciting — or heart wrenching — than a last-second shot to clinch a national championship. In fact, it hadn’t been done in over three decades until Kris Jenkins hit a clutch 3-pointer to crush the Tar Heels’ hopes of a sixth title.

The shot sent shockwaves throughout Philadelphia. Meanwhile, that same dagger simultaneously muted Chapel Hill.

Here’s a look at some of the best reactions from the shot along with a look at some shots from North State Journal photojournalists Madeline Gray and Eamon Queeney.

Kris Jenkins’ buzzer-beater sends North Carolina home empty handed

HOUSTON — Marcus Paige wasn’t going to go out like that.

So he double-pumped and drained a 3-pointer with 4.7 seconds to go and tied the national championship game against No. 2 Villanova.

But Kris Jenkins wasn’t going let Paige have the last word.

So he drained a buzzer-beating three that set the fireworks and streamers tumbling down from the sky at the NRG Stadium as Villanova defeated No. 1 North Carolina 77-74.

“Kris Jenkins lives for that moment,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said after the win.

The loss, UNC’s fifth in a national championship game, was Williams’ first as the Tar Heels’ head coach.

UNC (33-7) became rattled as the fouls mounted and shots stopped falling in the second half. With a little more than seven minutes remaining in the game, Villanova had outscored the Tar Heels 26-16 in the second half.

But aided by five points from Joel Berry II, the Tar Heels went on a 7-0 run late in the second half, but Booth halted that as he put Villanova up five with a bucket with 2:44 to go.

Despite a hot-shooting first half by Villanova, UNC led 39-34 at the break. Both teams shot over 50 percent, with UNC hitting 54 percent of its shots and the Wildcats knocking down 58 percent.

Before Monday night’s game, UNC was 22-1 this season when it shoots 50 percent or better.

Villanova forward Kris Jenkins (2) scores the winning basket in the final seconds of the NCAA Men's Basketball National Championship at the NRG Stadium in Houston, TX on Monday, April 4, 2016. Villanova beat North Carolina 77-74. (Christine T. Nguyen/North State Journal)
Villanova forward Kris Jenkins (2) scores the winning basket in the final seconds of the NCAA Men’s Basketball National Championship at the NRG Stadium in Houston, TX on Monday, April 4, 2016. Villanova beat North Carolina 77-74. (Christine T. Nguyen/North State Journal)

Unlike Saturday’s game where UNC went 0-for-12 from beyond the arc before hitting a shot, the Tar Heels knocked down seven of nine first-half 3-pointers.

In a pretty even first half, UNC led for 8:08 while Villanova held the advantage for 6:04. The two teams were tied for 5:48.

Berry, who’s been the difference-maker for UNC in the postseason, scored 15 points on an efficient 6 of 7 shooting performance in the first half — his highest first-half total all season. Berry also hit all three of his first-half three-point attempts.

Down 23-22 with eight minutes to go in the first half, Berry scored 12 consecutive points for UNC beginning with a 3-pointer that gave the Tar Heels a two-point lead. At the end of Berry’s tear, UNC lead 34-30 with just less than two minutes to play in the half.

As UNC’s shots clanked off the rim, Villanova’s continued to fall.

With 6:33 remaining, Paige — who scored 21 points in the final game of his career —  elected to pull up for a 3-pointer instead of driving it in the post. The shot missed, and the Wildcats made the Heels pay with a 3-pointer of their own by Ryan Arcidiacono on the other end.

North Carolina forward Kennedy Meeks (3) and North Carolina forward Brice Johnson (11) walk off the court after their 77-74 loss to Villanova during the NCAA Men's Basketball National Championship at the NRG Stadium in Houston, TX on Monday, April 4, 2016. (Christine T. Nguyen/North State Journal)
North Carolina forward Kennedy Meeks (3) and North Carolina forward Brice Johnson (11) walk off the court after their 77-74 loss to Villanova during the NCAA Men’s Basketball National Championship at the NRG Stadium in Houston, TX on Monday, April 4, 2016. (Christine T. Nguyen/North State Journal)

UNC endured long stretches of field goal droughts, twice going more than four minutes between buckets. The Wildcats built a 10-point lead with 5:29 to go.

Justin Jackson had the chance to get a few points back but missed both free throws with 2:44 to go to keep the deficit at five.

Unwilling to see his senior season to end, Paige drilled a 3-pointer from the corner with 1:30 to go to cut Villanova’s lead to three. Williams’ immediately called a timeout.

In the end, Nova and UNC traded off huge shots, but it was Jenkins’ prayer that sent the Heels home empty handed.


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John Thompson previews the National Championship game

j thompson

If you thought Roy Williams was cranky this week, spend a few minutes with Big John Thompson.

The former Georgetown coach held court at the Basketball Hall of Fame announcement, talking about his former player, Allen Iverson, who was selected for the Hall. In typical Thompson fashion, he ranged through topics far and wide and didn’t pull any punches.

“Coach,” said one reporter, “Rollie Massamino said …”

That was as far as he got. “Rollie is full of s**t,” Thompson answered.

Another reporter began a question by mentioning that Thompson was known for coaching big men.

“Yeah,” Thompson interrupted. “Well that’s a bunch of bulls**t too. That’s why Patrick (Ewing) can’t get a job. That’s what happens to guys that are tall. When you’re over 6-10, people say you’re just a big man coach. You get that label. The perception is that the big guys are not the guys that are thinking on the basketball court. Forget about race, that’s the perception. How many big guys are in the Hall of Fame for coaching? Go count them. I told Ralph Sampson and Patrick, ‘If you get a job, do not get the label of big man coach.’ That’s why I used to kick the a** of my guards in practice. You’re going to get all the jobs anyway.”

Thompson credited former UNC coach Dean Smith for helping to get athletic directors to look past the bias against big men, as well as the bias against African Americans. Smith was neither, but he was willing to speak out on Thompson’s behalf. “He paved the way for me,” Thompson said.

AI thompsonThen it was back to grumpy John as he discussed Iverson.

“He wasn’t perfect,” Thompson said of the shooting guard’s stormy career, on and off the court. “But I knew a lot of perfect people who weren’t worth a God d**m on the basketball court. His shortcomings were more on display than anyone else’s, while most of us like to camouflage a lot of ours.”

“You see kids, particularly black kids, with their hats on backwards and holes in their shoes and all that s**t, trying to make believe like they’re from the ghetto,” Thompson said. “When all the time, their parents are rich as hell. It works, because people see a black kid and assume he’s poor. That’s bulls**t. Allen was the real thing. He came from abject poverty.”

Iverson’s willingness to stand alone, despite the criticism, is something that gained Thompson’s respect, perhaps because the old coach sees a lot of himself in the player.

“That’s the thing that you like about him and hate about him at the same time,” he said. “He’s not somebody who cares a lot about getting validated. He came with the braids and the tattoos. He really changed sports. Now if you want to be different, you have to put on a coat and tie.”

Thompson was asked to preview tonight’s national championship game, and he responded with good-spirited gruffness.

“I’m mad at both teams, to tell you the truth,” he said. “Everybody asks me about Villanova (in 1985) all the time, but hell, we went there three times. Carolina beat us one time in the (1982) final game and Villanova beat us in the other one. So I tell people I hope both of them lose.”

Thompson finally gave a breakdown of the Wildcats and Tar Heels, from a coaching perspective.

“Both of those guys are my friends,” he said of Nova’s Jay Wright and Carolina’s Roy Williams. “Jay, I envy the hell out of Jay. I can’t understand how a guy coaches like that and comes away looking as good as he does. He’s all perfect and neat.”

“He does a very good job with those kids,” Thompson continued on Wright. “Ideally, what you want to see in a team, as a coach, he has done. When you see those kids play, they play with one another.”

Thompson is equally impressed with Williams, for reasons that are polar opposite of his respect for Wright.

“What both of these guys have done is phenomenal in different ways,” he said. “You look at that Villanova team, and you’ve got to ask how many of those guys are pros?”

Always a coach, Thompson waits for an answer. “None,” is ventured forth.

“That’s the phenomenal thing that Jay has done,” he said. “Now, you look at the Carolina team, and you ask how many of THOSE guys are going to be pros. (A lot.) And you’ve got to say that THAT’S phenomenal.”

“Talented people want to express themselves individually,” Thompson said of Carolina. “People will look at Carolina’s team and say, ‘Well, hell, I could coach that talent.’ That’s bulls**t. Ask the pros. They’ve got great players on pro teams, but they can’t get them to play as a cohesive unit. So what Roy has done to get that kind of player to play unselfishly, to give up something, is phenomenal.”

So who wins? The good college players who play as a team or the future pros who play as a team?

“I thought at the beginning, that Carolina was going to crush them and everybody they played,” Thompson said. “You look at them and say, ‘They’re going to crush them.’ But now, Villanova is scaring everybody. They’re the guys you look at and say, ‘Why the hell are they still playing like that?’ That’s a tribute to those kids. They play tough, and they play hard.”

Thompson never actually gave a prediction for the game, but by the time that oversight sinks in, he’s off on another topic.

“Today, if a kid gets 30 points, even if his team lost, that kid is happy. You see him doing that little dance and smacking their hands. They can’t learn a play, but they can do all those handshakes…”

Tomball don’t lie


The first weekend in April was a big one for the city of Tomball, Texas as the entire city dropped everything for one big event.

After all, the German Fest only happens once a year.

tomball7“There’s a downtown,” UNC sophomore swing man Justin Jackson said of his hometown, “but you can snap your fingers, and you’re already through it.”

Not on German Fest weekend. The traffic was lined up 10 deep as pedestrians drifted across Farm to Market Road.

One thing is clear, despite the easy narrative, Justin Jackson is not returning to his hometown for the Final Four. Calling Tomball a part of Houston is like saying someone from Siler City, Mebane or Garner is playing in his hometown at the Dean Dome.

Tomball, who boasts its population of 10,753 on the sign at the town limits—along with a “take THAT, Flint” sign touting its “Superior Public Water System”—is much farther from Houston than the odometer indicates.

This quiet unassuming town produced a player who matches its personality, at least off the court. He’s earnest and thoughtful, speaking in a slow, deep drawl that almost sounds like a Brooklyn accent at times.

Much like his play on the court in his two years at Carolina, each of which featured a prolonged shooting slump early in the season, Jackson sometimes overthinks things in interviews, trying too hard to be perfect when answering questions.

“It’s a little city,” Jackson says of his home town, “but it’s not too big.”

“I’ve been to a Texans game,” he says of his history at NRG Stadium. “Have I been to a Texans game? I think I might’ve been to one Texans game.”

“I’ve made that trek plenty of times,” Jackson says of going to Houston. “My home-school team—which I’m sure that’ll stir up a whole lot of jokes—had to practice at a high school toward downtown Houston. So yeah. Obviously, Houston’s huge anyway, so you’ve got to drive a distance to go anywhere.”

Nothing about Tomball is huge, but there’s still plenty of driving, as cars fill every inch of grass and dirt surrounding the main road through town. Everyone has come to German Fest.

tomball rrWith a little patience, a parking spot could be found in the gravel next to the railroad tracks. Back in the day, Tomball was known for its railroad station. The location and landscape of the town—close to the coast, not too hilly—made it an ideal spot for a train stop.

While BNSF freight trains still run through Tomball from time to time, it appears that the railroad has faded as the backbone for the local economy over the last 100 years.

tomball3Driving the 35 miles from downtown Houston to Tomball, an outsider entering from the east, on Farm to Market Road literally approaches town on the wrong side of the tracks. Boarded up stores and restaurants litter both sides of the highway, as well as plenty of industrial warehouses with “For Lease” signs out front.

tomball oldtownInside Tomball town limits, however, things pick up. Signs welcoming visitors to Old Town Tomball neighbor the train tracks on both sides of the street, and the area is a thriving cluster of antique shops, and stores whose names include “vintage” or “heritage”.

There’s Ricca’s Shoes and Boots, and Charlotte’s Saddlery (which features both English and Western Tack).

tomball2The group of stores in a plaza called Relics by the Railroad include a tea room (called The Whistle Stop, of course), a group of gift stores and something called the Burlap Ranch.

It’s here, in this three-block section of town that relies on a nostalgia-based economy, that the German Fest is located. There are rides for the kids, a polka band and plenty of brats and kraut at a variety of German food tomball5booths (including one called Schnitzels and Giggles).

Ignoring the people in lederhosen, one thing becomes apparent from the people attending German Fest. There are plenty of Astros and Texans gear. Texas A&M is well represented on the hats and shirts of attendees, but there’s nothing representing the college choice of town’s most-famous son.

After a prolonged hunt, one man, at a booth selling baked goods, is wearing a Carolina t-shirt. It turns out he’s a vendor who came to Tomball’s German Fest from another part of Texas. He wore the shirt thinking it would pander to the locals.

There are no Carolina signs in local shop windows, no restaurants advertising viewing parties for UNC’s Final Four games.

“Honestly I don’t think many people know who I am, which I don’t really mind,” Jackson said earlier in the week. “Being home schooled, I think that closed me off a little bit. But who knows? Maybe people know me now.”

Leaving Old Town Tomball for Tomball proper, the boutiques give way to a more town-like group of local businesses.

tomball bowlThe letter T must take up a majority of the Tomball yellow pages, because it seems that every locally-owned store features the town name. There’s Tomball Pet Resort and Tomball Acupuncture.  Tomball Moving and Storage, as well as Tomball Pool and Spa.

The fixation on the town name is interesting, since it’s based on a typo. Originally named Peck, the city was renamed in honor of local congressman Tom Ball in 1907. At some point, two words became one, and the name stuck.

tomball fire

One store has a rack of phone books out front, free for the taking. It’s the type of oddity that is common to small towns. Someone thought it was a good idea at some point, and we’ve done it that way ever since.

It’s a trusting and naïve gesture, one that likely seems perfectly normal to people that live in Tomball. Jackson, who got duped out of his game jersey in Washington D.C. prior to an ACC Tournament start, wouldn’t bat an eye.

The directory gives the answer to one question—there are 112 businesses and organizations in town that begin with the word Tomball.

tomball6Traveling west on Farm to Market Road, the local businesses are replaced by chains. Jackson said that his one hope in returning to Houston was that the team would get to eat at Whataburger, a Texas chain restaurant, at some point during the week. As of Saturday’s national semifinals postgame, the Tar Heels hadn’t made it there.

tomball hayhutFields of longhorn cattle signify that Tomball has passed, but a few miles down the road, a right turn leads into a housing development. People are out mowing their lawns, and joggers wave at strangers in passing cars.

Every house seems to have a flagpole, and the Lone Star flag is below Old Glory on each. Ducks wander near a pond that looks manmade.

tomball geese

One house stands out from the rest. It’s not because of the full-size basketball court in the back. That’s not visible from the road. No, the place stands out, because it has the only acknowledgement that someone from town is playing in the Final Four on German Fest weekend.

A blue banner hands above the front porch, and a pair of Tar Heel signs adorn the front door of the Jackson house—Jackson’s alma mater.

tomball banner

He won’t get to see it this week.

“It’s not going back home, it’s going to the Final Four to play basketball,” coach Roy Williams said when asked about Jackson’s homecoming before leaving Chapel Hill.

“I don’t think I’m going to make it up there,” Jackson said, plain-spoken and straightforward as always–Tomball to the core. “We’ve got Final Four stuff.”


Tar Heels loose ahead of national championship

HOUSTON — Roy Williams twitched in surprise as he turned his head at Sunday’s final press conference before Monday’s national championship game.

Another press conference, another uninvited guest — the same guest that always seems to find his way into the spotlight — stealing the show.

But at this point, it shouldn’t have come as any shock that Theo Pinson found his way on to the dais at the last pregame press conference of the NCAA Tournament.

“He turned his head, and it was probably one of his nightmares to see my face,” Pinson said, regaling reporters in the locker room afterwards with the story of his latest hijinks.

If the first press conference crashing before the Elite Eight win against Notre Dame was off the cuff, this one was most certainly premeditated.

It’s a tradition, part of a series of superstitions that these fun-loving Tar Heels refuse to shake ahead of the biggest game of their careers thus far.

“Theo, I’m pretty sure he did that because last weekend he did that and it worked well for us,” senior Marcus Paige said. “We don’t like to disrupt what’s working. The past couple weekends we’ve kept the same dinner routines. The first night we’ll go to a nice steakhouse and then after we play, and then on this day on the previous weekends, we’ve gone to a more laid back restaurant and just kind of had a more casual dinner. We’re doing that again. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Hopefully this rhythm that we’re in will help us.”

From right, North Carolina forward Justin Jackson (44) and guard Marcus Paige (5) watch as guard Joel Berry II (2) jokes around during a press conference before the NCAA Men's Basketball Championship at the NRG Stadium in Houston, TX on Sunday, April 3, 2016. (Christine T. Nguyen/North State Journal)
From right, North Carolina forward Justin Jackson (44) and guard Marcus Paige (5) watch as guard Joel Berry II (2) jokes around during a press conference before the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship at the NRG Stadium in Houston, TX on Sunday, April 3, 2016. (Christine T. Nguyen/North State Journal)

The looseness has been well-documented. From Pinson’s antics to Williams’ dance moves and April Fools’ pranks, this UNC team is perhaps one of the most laid back squads to make it this far under Williams.

Usually, Williams prefers radio silence on bus trips between the arenas and hotels, but recently, the coach has gone soft in his ways, and earlier this week he passed the auxiliary cord around to his players to DJ the drive. It’s just another one of the ways the coach, who said he used to “coach with fear,” has adjusted to his teams over the years.

“He’s been doing the dabbing,” sophomore point guard Joel Berry II said. “He’s been jumping around with us. He’s been dancing with us. On the bus on the way back to the hotel usually coach doesn’t let guys play music on the bus, but he encouraged us to take our phones to the front of the bus and put it on the aux cord and were just all in there singing and dancing.

“It just goes to show that he’s going into this loose. I think he’s enjoying this process as well. And through these years, there’s different ways you have to coach different teams. I think the way he has coached this team has been unbelievable. We’re a team that likes to joke around and have fun. He’s adjusted to that really well. I think he’s handled it really well. He just changed his way really well as well. I think it’s bringing him a little joy knowing that there’s still hope in coaching college basketball. I think he’s done a great job of that.”

North Carolina forward Brice Johnson (11) reacts as head coach Roy Williams talks about his height during a press conference before the NCAA Men's Basketball Championship at the NRG Stadium in Houston, TX on Sunday, April 3, 2016. (Christine T. Nguyen/North State Journal)
North Carolina forward Brice Johnson (11) reacts as head coach Roy Williams talks about his height during a press conference before the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship at the NRG Stadium in Houston, TX on Sunday, April 3, 2016. (Christine T. Nguyen/North State Journal)

On the other side of the court, No. 2-seed Villanova is taking a more serious approach, having learned that looseness doesn’t always win championships in a game against the Tar Heels seven years ago.

UNC trounced the Wildcats 83-69 in the Final Four en route to the 2009 national championship game. Ty Lawson’s 22 points along with 20 from Wayne Ellington and 18 points and 11 rebounds by Tyler Hansbrough pushed the Tar Heels past Villanova and onto an eventual title.

Remembering the sheer determination of that UNC team, Villanova coach Jay Wright has implemented a tight regimen for his players to keep them focused throughout the tournament.

“You could just see the focus in Carolina,” Wright said Friday. “You could see our guys were just playing a game. I knew. It was about 10 minutes into the game. I knew. I was like, ‘I didn’t get these guys ready.’ ”

So this time around, Wright is making plenty sure his guys are ready to face North Carolina (33-6) on an even bigger stage.

Since beating Oklahoma 95-51 Saturday night, the Wildcats (34-5) have continued to stay in the zone, still consuming basketball at a constant clip.

“We watched the game between North Carolina and Syracuse last night,” Darryl Reynolds said. “We ate, we slept. We watched the game back at the hotel. Just try to digest the (Oklahoma) game but also kind of put that aside because we have a game ahead of us.”

Like any team preparing for a game of this magnitude, the Tar Heels will definitely be doing the same game-planning and practicing, but in staying true to themselves, there’s definitely going to be a little fun mixed in with the hard work.

“I think it’s going to be a long, long 48 hours or whatever it is,” Paige said after the win against Syracuse. “You’ve got to enjoy it. Luckily our team is probably the most loose, most relaxed fun team to be around. So we’ll find time, find ways to kill time. Hang out and play video games. Relax, shoot some pool at the hotel. I’ve got to win some of those games, some of those ping pong games too.”

“We’ll relax and then as the game gets closer, we’ve got to really focus in. There’s only two teams left playing in the country. No reason for us not to have our best performance Monday night.”