After dreams of stardom, how UNC’s Nate Britt found peace with himself and his role

UNC senior guard Nate Britt, who scored 10 points during the Tar Heels’ victory against Texas Southern on Friday in the NCAA tournament, has learned to accept, and embrace, his role.
UNC senior guard Nate Britt, who scored 10 points during the Tar Heels’ victory against Texas Southern on Friday in the NCAA tournament, has learned to accept, and embrace, his role. rwillett@newsobserver.com

Nate Britt imagined what everyone else imagines when they’re being recruited by Roy Williams and North Carolina. Britt imagined a starting role, and stardom, and years of highlights and basketball heroism. He saw those things when he dreamed.

Isn’t that the common fantasy for a high school kid headed to Chapel Hill? Britt is now a senior guard for the Tar Heels, one of the team’s most important reserves. He’s become a leader and a mentor, and he has embraced those roles but, no – this isn’t exactly how he imagined these four years.

He sat in front of his locker on Saturday, one day before UNC’s game against Arkansas on Sunday in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Any one of these games now could be Britt’s final college game, the last time he puts on the uniform.

And so he reflected on Saturday about the journey, how it began. It has, in his words, “been a ride.”

“I think every player that’s as good as we are, guys that get recruited by coach, imagines himself coming in and being a star guy,” Britt said. “And obviously that’s not realistic, because there’s no way we’ll have 15, 16 star guys on our team, no matter how good everyone is.”

National championship contenders like UNC need the stars. They need players like Joel Berry, the junior point guard, and Justin Jackson, the junior forward who earned ACC Player of the Year honors. They need reliably-productive complementary contributors, like Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks.

They need someone like Theo Pinson, as versatile as he is. And yet, as Berry said on Saturday, contenders need someone like Britt, too – someone with some experience and wisdom, and enough sense to understand that contributing doesn’t always mean scoring a lot, or even playing all that much.

Britt lived his initial vision, at least for a while. He started at point guard in his first 16 college games, while UNC worked through the P.J. Hairston drama that cast a pall over the 2013-14 season. Back then, three years ago, Britt had reason to believe that his role might only expand.

Instead he has started 10 times since. One of those came earlier this month on senior night, when the Tar Heels prevailed against Duke, and afterward, during his farewell address, Britt referenced some of the anguish he’d endured – dealing with the naysayers and the heavy weight of his own expectations.

During his four seasons at UNC, Britt has played alongside some of the most beloved players in school history. Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson, the departed seniors who led the Tar Heels to the Final Four a season ago, remain adored.

Britt, meanwhile, has sometimes experienced the other side of fandom. The nasty side.

“Over a while, you learn how to block that stuff out,” Britt said on Saturday, “and block out that negative energy. And then also confidence (from) the staff and teammates – I think those guys believing in me makes it a lot easier, as well.”

When the Tar Heels defeated Arkansas in the second round of the NCAA tournament two years ago, in Jacksonville, Britt played a prominent first-half role. He scored 10 points – he’s scored in double-figures only 10 times in the two seasons since then – and he helped lead UNC to victory.

He remembered that game on Saturday as “being up and down … a fun game,” he said. Now this is something of a full-circle moment – playing Arkansas again in the NCAA tournament during his final college season.

Two years ago Britt still carried around some of those high individual aspirations. Maybe he could break out. Maybe he could still play a larger role. Two years later he has found peace with himself, and with his contributions. That was a journey in itself, the path to acceptance.

“In the beginning it’s difficult,” Britt said. “Like I said, everyone wants to be the star, everyone wants to be a starter. So it is hard to swallow, but at the same time, everyone comes to Carolina to be a part of something bigger than you.”

Entering the NCAA tournament, Britt was averaging 4.5 points in about 19 minutes of playing time per game. He’s averaging about a full point fewer than what he did during his first three seasons, and yet Britt’s role isn’t often quantifiable.

There’s no way to measure in numbers, after all, the way he’s mentored Seventh Woods, the Tar Heels’ freshman point guard. Or the way Britt has helped Berry and Jackson transition into the leadership roles they now possess.

“Sometimes he’ll come up to me and be like, ‘I think we should do this and that,’ ” Berry said. “And sometimes he tells me or Justin, because we’re the ones that pretty much lead the team, he’ll tell us something to be able to relay it to coach.”

This hasn’t been the easiest season, meanwhile, for Woods, who struggled early in the season, especially, to grasp the intricacies of the UNC offense. Britt, Woods said, “has been a mentor” this season, and Britt has become something of a trusted confidante.

“He’s probably the old head on the team,” Woods said, “and he’s just a great guy, a great big brother to look up to, really.”

Other players receive far more attention. As Berry goes, the saying goes, so too do the Tar Heels. Jackson is the ACC Player of the Year, an All-American whose No. 44 will hang from the Smith Center rafters. Meeks is averaging nearly a double-double. Hicks can fill a highlight tape with his dunks.

If UNC returns to the Final Four in a couple of weeks, chances are it will because the Tar Heels’ best players have thrived. Britt’s role, as limited as it is on the court, has been instrumental, too, though.

In moments, he offers Berry respites from the grind he often experiences. And Britt is arguably UNC’s best perimeter defender, and he’s earned the team’s defensive player of the game award 10 times this season – most on the team.

If Berry is limited by an ankle injury on Sunday – and coach Roy Williams expressed concern on Saturday about Berry’s status against Arkansas – then Britt’s on-court role would expand significantly. Behind the scenes, away from the lights and the cameras, Britt already plays a large role.

“Off the court, I think leadership is something huge,” Jackson said. “He’s somebody that you can go to talk to, who you can laugh with, you can joke with. I mean, he’s a little bit of everything for us.

“And having him as a senior this year, with this group of guys, I think it’s been really key for this run that we’re trying to have.”

Years ago Britt was another high school kid with a vivid imagination. There were no limits, back then, to what he thought could be possible during his time at UNC.

Then the reality set in. He learned some of his limits. He had to learn to accept those limits.

“It’s hard for us guys like that, that come in with the hype that we get from high school, to come into a situation where you’re not getting the minutes or not scoring the points that you usually score,” Berry said. “And that could really break someone down. But for him, he’s always been positive.”

Britt acknowledged that, at times, he considered what he might have done had he chosen to go to college somewhere else. Indeed, he said, “everyone has those thoughts,” but Britt never seriously considered leaving. UNC, he said, had become his home, even if he never imagined it’d be like this.

His first three years at UNC, Britt lived with Meeks, who described Britt on Saturday as his best friend. They arrived at UNC together and they’ll leave together, along with Hicks and UNC’s other seniors. And now part of what Britt imagined all those years ago, a national championship, is one thing that’s still possible.

Andrew Carter: 919-829-8944, @_andrewcarter