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.”
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.”
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.”