At some point during the next 11 days, whether it happens on Friday or a week from Monday, Kennedy Meeks, the North Carolina senior forward, will play in his final college game. So will Isaiah Hicks, UNC’s senior forward.
So will Nate Britt, a senior guard who has been an important reserve throughout most of four seasons with the Tar Heels. And so might Joel Berry and Justin Jackson, two juniors who lead UNC in scoring. Both will have the option of leaving school to pursue a professional career.
And so for this particular group, a nucleus of players who helped lead the Tar Heels to the brink of a national championship a season ago, this is it: the final week and a half of their time together – their final run while their window to win a national championship remains open, for now.
The No. 1-seeded Tar Heels play against fourth-seeded Butler here on Friday in an NCAA tournament East Regional semifinal. If UNC advances, it will have a maximum of three games remaining in a season that began as soon as last season ended.
That the Tar Heels’ time together is ending is not unique given the transient nature of college basketball. Players come and go – whether on their way to the NBA or to another school – more often than ever, and teams seem to constantly rebuild.
UNC is unique, then, in that it has kept its nucleus intact. That was the case a year ago, when departed seniors Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson led UNC to the Final Four in their fourth season. And it’s the same again this season, with another group of familiar faces that have been around a while.
The continuity has helped in ways large and small. UNC’s most experienced players, for one, have long grown familiar with each other’s on-court tendencies, their strengths and weaknesses. In the locker room, they’ve bonded long enough to come up with plenty of inside jokes, too.
“You don’t have to worry about every year, so much changeover,” C.B. McGrath, one of UNC’s assistant coaches, said on Thursday inside the Tar Heels’ locker room. “But we’ve been lucky. We’ve had good kids and they’ve gotten better, they’ve bought into the program, they’ve wanted to be there.”
The last part of that might be the most important part: The desire to be there.
College basketball has become a sport defined, in some ways, by how quickly players leave. The best players, oftentimes, want to spend one season in college before departing for the NBA. Some of the best programs, especially Kentucky and Duke, want to prove they can help those players leave quickly.
UNC has used a different approach, though perhaps not by design. Roy Williams, in his 14th season as the Tar Heels’ coach, has said several times in recent years that he wants one-and-done talent as much as any other coach in the country.
Williams has aggressively recruited Kevin Knox, a prized high school prospect who is considered a likely candidate to spend only one season in college. For several reasons – the cloud of an ongoing NCAA investigation, the perception that UNC doesn’t embrace one-and-dones – Williams hasn’t had luck landing players like Knox, who is expected to announce his college decision in early April.
Instead, the Tar Heels have had success with a sort of old-school model, one reliant on players remaining in school and developing together. The disadvantage of that is UNC might lack the top-end, NBA talent of other teams. But the advantages have been clear enough.
“That’s the greatest thing about this team, is that we have guys that have been here for multiple years, besides the freshman,” said Jackson, the junior who was named ACC Player of the Year. “From sophomores on up, we’ve been to a national championship game.
“We’ve been through every possible thing that can be thrown at you. So having these guys and how close we are, that just helps us. Honestly, I think that helped us in the last game. In tough times, we don’t break apart, we stay together.”
Even if Knox chooses the Tar Heels, next year might be a bit of a rebuilding season for UNC. The Tar Heels will lose their top two players on the interior. They’ll lose a valuable leader in Britt. They might lose Jackson, who’s projected as a first-round NBA draft pick, and they could lose Berry.
And so UNC’s window to win a national championship might be closing. This could be its best chance for a while. Williams, the Tar Heels’ coach, said he wasn’t so much thinking about that sort of thing – the future – earlier this week. He had enough on his mind.
“If you worry about what the dickens is going to happen down the road – in the tournament play I’ve always said that’s where you’re going, is down the road,” Williams said. “But it would be a total sin if I were to worry about what’s going to happen.”
His players, though, have thought about it. Especially the ones who are leaving.
Britt said it was “pretty sad” – the thought that, for this group, the end is approaching.
“Coming in my freshman year, I could already tell that our core group of guys were the tightest group of guys I’ve ever played with,” he said. “And the closest group of guys I’ve ever played with. And we share that chemistry on and off the court.”
That’s somewhat unique, too, the apparent closeness among Britt and his teammates. Their group text message thread, which includes every member of the team, received some publicity last week in Greenville, S.C., where the name of that text message group – “Redemption” – became public.
That’s only a small example of the unity that has defined the Tar Heels, and at times eluded them in years past. Stilman White, a reserve senior guard who spent two years on a Mormon mission, was a freshman on UNC’s 2011-12 team, which also entered the season to win a national championship.
The vibe of that team, though, was far different from this one, White said on Thursday.
“It had a little bit more of a professional feel,” White said. “You had guys like Harrison (Barnes) and Tyler (Zeller) and all them – they knew where they were headed in the very near future, and they had a professional take on the team. And this team is more like a bunch of college guys.
“It’s more close knit. We joke around more and we have a better time, it seems like.”
That’s partly because White and his teammates have been around each other as long as they have. It’s partly because the Tar Heels have been as successful as they’ve been in recent years. Now, at most, there are 11 days left.
UNC vs. Butler
NCAA tournament Sweet 16
When: 7:10 p.m., Friday
Where: FedExForum, Memphis, Tenn.