Stilman White sat on a folding chair beside the Smith Center court prior to practice, dribbling two balls simultaneously in unassuming imitation of Golden State guard Stephen Curry. White would be ready when called upon to play, knowing better than most deep reserves that his anonymous bench role could change in an instant.
He and his coaches, if none of his current teammates, recall a brief, fraught interlude when White was essential to North Carolina’s fortunes. An unrated prospect out of high school in Wilmington, White was forced to step abruptly into the lineup after Kendall Marshall broke his wrist against Creighton in UNC’s second NCAA tournament game in 2012. Dexter Strickland already had been lost in late January with a damaged knee, making White the best option at the position.
White performed admirably as a starter against Ohio University and Kansas, playing 60 minutes without a turnover in the Sweet 16 and Elite 8. But that was not enough to prevent a championship-caliber Tar Heel squad from falling one game shy of the Final Four. Afterward coach Roy Williams declared he would avoid running short of premier playmakers again.
Four years later, another Carolina squad has enjoyed another exceptional season. Coaches encourage viewing teams in isolation, both to rightly appreciate their unique personality but also to deflect expectations generated by the achievements of past squads. In fact, though, the experiences of players and coaches in an established program like UNC reverberate from one season to the next, contributing to the new whole they become over time.
That’s certainly the case with the present group, which not coincidentally has three viable options at point – Joel Berry II, Marcus Paige and Nate Britt. The ’16 Tar Heels fit within a broader context in which seven Williams squads have advanced at least to the NCAA regional finals over the past dozen years, a record that includes Elite 8 appearances in 2007, 2011 and 2012, Final Four trips in 2008 and this year, and the 2005 and 2009 NCAA championships.
Perhaps because the Heels endured a three-year lull from 2013 through 2015 in which they failed to get past the Sweet 16 – success for most programs but something less at Chapel Hill – their sustained level of achievement has been largely overlooked. In fact, no other program in the country can match UNC’s overall prowess in the NCAAs since 2005.
Duke did win a pair of national titles during that span (2010, 2015), but otherwise made a single Elite 8 appearance (2013) and was ousted three times in NCAA openers (2007, 2012, 2014). Florida made six Elite 8 advances and won two titles over the past dozen years, but even that doesn’t match Carolina.
White, meanwhile, has been on hand to watch the current unit ripen into a powerful approximation of the 2012 squad for which he played 196 minutes. He has been more observer than participant since returning from a Mormon mission during the 2013 and 2014 seasons, playing a combined 52 minutes over the past two years.
He readily notes the 2016 Tar Heels are very similar to the ’12 version. Both teams started the year No. 1 in the polls, finished first during the ACC regular season, and earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAAs. “I would say we both had the same goals and mindset about what we want to accomplish,” White says. “I think both teams knew how good we were and we had the potential to make a deep run in March.”
The economics major identifies another trait shared by both groups: an abiding confidence in the leadership of Williams, their emotive coach. “He’s a lot smarter than all of us,” White says. “He’s done this a lot longer than any of us. We trust him so that we can follow him blindly. We have faith in him that whatever he says we know will help us out. So, whatever he tells us to do, we’ll run into a brick wall if he tells us to.”
The wall the Tar Heels encountered recently is not one of brick, but of perception. Amid an ongoing investigation of bogus classes, and keening by Williams and some Carolina supporters about the debilitating unfairness of the resulting uncertainties, recruiting has suffered. Relatively speaking.
Comparable programs such as Duke and Kentucky have thrived lately with a steady diet of come-and-go freshmen. Much was made of the decision by Kinston’s Brandon Ingram to attend Duke this season rather than UNC, supposedly influenced by the lingering cloud cast by the NCAA inquiry. While Ingram is virtually certain to depart Durham immediately for the NBA, North Carolina’s last one-and-done player, even its last two-and-done player, was Reggie Bullock in 2013.
Bullock was among seven future pros on that 2012 North Carolina squad, its leader unassuming 7-footer Tyler Zeller, the last Tar Heel selected ACC Player of the Year. It’s difficult to envision NBA careers for a comparable number of this year’s Heels.
Yet the 2016 UNC squad has penetrated farther into the NCAA tournament than its most successful recent predecessor and is routinely described as talent-rich and deep. “I had to love them, why did I offer them a scholarship?” Williams asks rhetorically. “I said last year the NBA wasn’t beating their door down trying to get them to go. But those guys are pretty doggone good players. They are more experienced and more focused than they’ve been the last couple years, too.”
Maturation has not translated into a matching tenor between the current unit and the 2012 squad. “I don’t know whether it was because I was a freshman and it was kind of new – the older guys, they seemed more businesslike and professional,” White says. “This team has a more college feel to it, a bunch of college guys, which also makes it a lot of fun. We’re always having a lot of fun joking around, teasing each other.”
Basketball convention has it that a team reflects the personality of its coach. Yet the personalities of oncourt leaders can’t be minimized, either, in shaping a team.
Thus the stylistic difference between a ’12 squad led by Zeller – a sober, sound, two-time Academic All-American – and a ’16 unit with a lighter tone and less consistent performances taking cues from flamboyantly emotional Brice Johnson. “Brice really does love to yell and all that stuff,” White says. “We’re a little bit more loud, (there’s) a lot of teasing, joking with each other. It shows on the court.”
A court where these Tar Heels now stand one step removed from earning the school’s sixth NCAA championship.