UNC’s trip to Hawaii about more than basketball

UNC freshman forward Tony Bradley was looking forward to the Tar Heels’ trip to Hawaii -- but not necessarily to the flight there.
UNC freshman forward Tony Bradley was looking forward to the Tar Heels’ trip to Hawaii -- but not necessarily to the flight there. rwillett@newsobserver.com

North Carolina’s players and coaches have been together since early October, since the beginning of practice, but now they’ll really be together, unified in the kind of way that only comes amid long flights and longer stretches together in the same hotel, and same dining room, day after day.

The Tar Heels on Wednesday left for Hawaii. They’ll spend more than a week there and by the time they return, they will have played four games in two cities, all while spending about 21 hours on a plane traveling there, between islands and back.

That was the part – the long flights – that Tony Bradley, the freshman forward, didn’t appear all too excited about earlier this week after UNC’s victory against Long Beach State on Tuesday. Sure, Bradley said then, a trip to Hawaii sounded nice and all.

But, he said while he shaking his head slightly, “Just that length of time – a 10-hour flight.”

UNC begins the basketball portion of its Hawaiian excursion on Friday night – early Saturday morning, east coast time – at Hawaii. The game starts at 8 p.m. in Honolulu, which means it begins at 1 a.m. back in North Carolina.

From there, the Tar Heels will take a short flight to Maui, where on Monday they’ll play in the first round of the Maui Invitational against Chaminade, the tournament host. UNC is returning to Maui for the first time since 2012 – and will be back in its first opportunity to make that particular trip.

NCAA rules limit how often teams can participate in special pre-conference season tournaments, like the one in Maui or the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas. The rule is teams can return to those sites once every four years.

And so every four years UNC is in Maui, which happens to be among coach Roy Williams’ favorite destinations. His team’s performances there, more often than not, have, for Williams, been as enjoyable as the scenery and the weather.

UNC won the Maui Invitational in 2004 and 2008. Those triumphs preceded the national championships the Tar Heels won both of those seasons. The last time UNC traveled to Maui, in 2012, it lost against Butler in a semifinal game and then beat Chaminade by 42 points in a consolation game.

Basketball is only a part of these long trips, though. It’s the most important part, and certainly the most visible part. And yet everything that happens away from the court – in the hotel, in meeting rooms, the downtime around the island – is significant, too, for the purposes of team-building and developing cohesion.

I’ve always thought going on the road for an extended time period helps your team chemistry, if you’re successful. If you’re not successful, sometimes it shows the warts.

Roy Williams

“I’ve always thought going on the road for an extended time period helps your team chemistry, if you’re successful,” Williams said. “If you’re not successful, sometimes it shows the warts.

“But I like the fact that our guys are together and spending time together, getting to know each other a lot more.”

During the trip, the Tar Heels are scheduled to visit Pearl Harbor, Williams said, to “make sure they understand some of the things that went on in history.” There will be some snorkeling, some time on the beach and, perhaps, a team jump into the ocean from Black Rock, a popular tourist destination.

Joel Berry, though, didn’t sound too sure about that one earlier this week.

“I don’t think I’ll be doing that,” Berry, the junior point guard, said with a laugh. “No, not at all. Scared of heights, so ...”

Like several of his teammates, Berry said he grew up watching Maui Invitational games on TV during Thanksgiving week. He’d been watching this tournament, he said, “since I was a little child.” And now comes his turn, in his first trip to Hawaii.

The No. 5 Tar Heels will arrive as the favorites to win the Maui Invitational. They’re unlikely to be challenged against Chaminade, a Division II team that is a part of the tournament tradition, nonetheless, and UNC in its second game will play against either Oklahoma State or Connecticut.

The Cowboys won 12 games a season ago and Connecticut lost its first two this season, against Wagner and Northeastern. UNC’s most difficult competition could come from the opposite bracket, which includes Wisconsin, Oregon and Georgetown. Like Berry, Kennedy Meeks, the senior center, grew up watching these games in Maui, which is now home to college basketball’s most tradition-rich November tournament.

“It’ll be fun to be a part of,” he said. “But of course, you think about the water, you think about just the whole tropical aspect from it. So I’m looking forward to everything.”

He isn’t the only one. While Williams praised the benefits of these kinds of trips – the team-building, the time together – he said he’d “like to think it’s not just because I like Hawaii.”

“But we do go to Maui every four years for a reason,” he said. “The head coach likes it.”

Andrew Carter: 919-829-8944, @_andrewcarter