Before a North Carolina practice late last week, men’s basketball coach Roy Williams was walking around around the perimeter of the court at the Smith Center, taking some laps like he usually does while his players begin to gather. Williams asked Spenser Dalton to join him.
Dalton, a junior, had been a member of the UNC junior varsity team, but he was there that day, as he has been at other times recently, to practice with the varsity. Injuries have depleted the Tar Heels’ depth, and practices have been especially difficult with limited numbers.
Dalton joined Williams on his walk. Williams broke the news quickly: He was keeping Dalton on the varsity. Dalton had tried out for the team during the preseason, one of four JV players to do so. He narrowly missed the cut.
Now, months later, it was happening: He was going to play on the UNC varsity and receive all the perks that come with it – a locker, the jersey, the whole thing.
“I saw 43 and I was just like, this is something I’ve been waiting for for as long as I can absolutely remember,” Dalton said of seeing his jersey for the first time. “It was just incredibly exciting.”
He’ll be there Tuesday night, toward the end of the bench, when the 19th-ranked Tar Heels play at Georgia Tech. Dalton won’t ever play much in games, and likely won’t play at all unless the score is lopsided and it’s late and the outcome already has been decided. He knows that.
He knows, too, that now he has accomplished something many dream of but few ever do. Williams, who coached the JV team during his early years as a UNC assistant under Dean Smith, said Dalton was “very happy” when he received the news.
“But he deserves it, too,” Williams said, “because he really did a nice job for us in the preseason when he was trying to make the club, and those two or three, four times that he came back and practiced with us.”
Dalton’s midseason ascent isn’t unprecedented at UNC. In 1993 Smith promoted Pearce Landry to the varsity. Landry started at times during the 1994-95 season while Dante Calabria was injured.
During that walk with Williams last week, Dalton said he tried to keep his emotions from escaping.
“But on the inside,” he said, “I was just jumping for joy.”
The next day he left on his first road trip with the team to Miami. He checked out the itinerary, which called for a snack at 10:45. Dalton was thinking something light, maybe some protein shakes.
“And then they’ve got the full meal laid out,” he said, “Hamburgers, chicken.”
Dalton made one rookie mistake, he said. He got off on the wrong floor at the team hotel. It was a challenge he’d never had to worry about during his days on the JV, given the road trips there – as rare as they are – consist of bus rides and no overnight stays.
Junior guard J.P. Tokoto was on the elevator. He reminded Dalton of it after UNC’s victory at Miami on Saturday, and they both laughed.
Georgia Tech vs. No. 19 North Carolina
When: 7 p.m.
Where: McCamish Pavilion
Projected starting lineups
Georgia Tech (12-17, 3-14)
G Travis Jorgenson 3.8 ppg, 3.3 apg
G Tadric Jackson 4.9 ppg, 1.4 rpg
G Marcus Georges-Hunt 14 ppg, 5.7 rpg
F Demarco Cox 8.6 rpg, 5.9 rpg
F Robert Sampson 5.3 ppg, 6.5 rpg
North Carolina (17-5, 7-2)
G Marcus Paige 13.4 ppg, 4.4 apg
G J.P. Tokoto 8.7 ppg, 5.4 rpg
F Justin Jackson 9.8 ppg, 3.8 rpg
F Brice Johnson 12.8 ppg, 7.9 rpg
F Kennedy Meeks 12.6 ppg, 7.7 rpg
Key theme: UNC and Georgia Tech are playing for the second time in 11 days. The Tar Heels were at their best during the first meeting, an 89-60 victory Feb. 21. UNC shot a season-high 62.3 percent during that game. The Yellow Jackets haven’t had much luck this season and that continued in their past two games, a one-point loss against Louisville and an overtime defeat against Clemson. UNC freshman forward Theo Pinson had been hoping to return for this game from his broken foot, but coach Roy Williams said he won’t play.