As Kenny Williams and Cam Johnson pulled up to the parking lot of the Charlotte Spectrum Center on Oct. 24 for ACC Media Day, they realized they had come back to the place where their season ended last March.
It was in that arena on March 18 that the No. 2-seed Tar Heels, along with Williams, then a junior guard, and Johnson, then a graduate guard, were upset 86-65 by No. 7 Texas A&M in the NCAA tournament’s Round of 32.
And they remembered that feeling of defeat.
“That sting of the tournament was still kind of there,” Johnson said.
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Last year’s early exit from the NCAA tournament was disappointing to a team that expected to go back to the national championship game for the third time in three years.
In their first two seasons at UNC, Williams and forward Luke Maye played for the national title twice. As freshmen, the two lost 77-74 to Villanova on a game-winning buzzer beater. As sophomores, they won the championship on a 71-65 win over Gonzaga.
Losing in the Round of 32 last season was something those players weren’t used to, and something they vowed they won’t let happen again.
“Watching two weekends is something I’m not going to go out with this year,” Maye said in June, “and I’m going to try do that as best I can, and hopefully I can get my teammates on the same page.”
This year’s UNC team features a mix of talented experienced players and rookies. McDonald’s All-American’s Coby White and Nassir Little, along with Leaky Black, a top 100 recruit who can play multiple positions, join seniors Maye (16.9 points per game, 10.1 rebounds) and Williams (11.4 points per game), and graduate student Johnson (12.4 points per game).
White, a 6-5, 185-pound guard from Greenfield School in Wilson, is expected to start at point guard this season. Little, a 6-6, 220-pound forward who is considered the most talented of the three freshman, could start too.
Black, coach Roy Willliams said, has “really played well, too.”
“He’s probably a better basketball player, instinctively, than we’ve had in quite a while,” the coach said.
Last season, the Tar Heels struggled to defend and score around the rim. UNC had to go small, using the 6-8, 240-pound Maye, a power forward, at center.
As a result, teams with athletic and talented big men had success against the Tar Heels.
This season Williams is hoping his big men — sophomores Brandon Huffman, Andrew Platek, Garrison Brooks and Sterling Manley — will allow him to use two big men on the floor at the same time.
Those players struggled some last season, but they think they’ve improved, “because the bigs are a lot better,” the 6-9, 230-pound Brooks said.
“Throw that ball inside, we can score it now,” Brooks, who had 16 points and 16 rebounds in UNC’s exhibition game against Mt. Olive on Nov. 2, said with a smile.
Maye said Tuesday’s season opener at Wofford, a team the Tar Heels lost to 79-75 last season, will be a good test for how tough this team is.
“I think starting like this, against a team we lost to last year is no better way to do it,” Maye said.
UNC at Wofford
When: 7 p.m., Tuesday
Where: Spartanburg, S.C.