North Carolina is Not Ready to Surrender
CHAPEL HILL, NC — On Sunday around 8:00 PM, the Carolina locker room made a funeral seem like a joyous place to be. They mumbled responses to questions they couldn’t possibly know how to answer in the moments after finding out Kendall Marshall – their leader, their point guard – could miss the rest of the NCAA tournament. In that instant, all of their national title hopes and dreams could be dead, and they knew that.
Two days later, the sad faces and short answers were replaced by the traits that have characterized this team all season: thoughtfulness, a little bit of humor and some steely resolve.
Tyler Zeller came into Smith Center media room first. The seven-footer laughed heartily at the notion that the NC State fans in St. Louis would be rooting for them, then spoke glowingly of freshman James Michael McAdoo, who has emerged in the last few weeks.
When asked if he still believed Carolina could still win it all, he didn’t hesitate to say yes. And when questioned about team morale, he became the first of three Tar Heels to reference ESPN. “We just watched a little ESPN segment (in the locker room) and we were joking about it. They basically said that we’re coming back to Chapel Hill instead of going to New Orleans (for the Final Four),” Zeller said.
John Henson followed Zeller, and Henson’s impish grin was back in full force as he cracked jokes about being the third-string point guard. He did take reps in practice a few months ago, running Carolina’s ‘box’ play. (When told head coach Roy Williams described it as cute, Henson wrinkled his nose and said: “I don’t know if it was ‘cute’. I haven’t been described as ‘cute’ for a long time by someone other than a female.”)
While Zeller had compliments for both freshman backup point guard Stilman White and senior utility man Justin Watts (both will split time at the point in Marshall’s potential absence), Henson wanted to pump up White. “People underestimate Stilman but he’s athletic. He can handle the ball. He can make great plays. He’s got a nice shot as well,” he said.
Henson joked about his wardrobe choice (a black t-shirt and red shorts) being in honor of NC State and then he too referenced ESPN. “I’ve seen ESPN SportsCenter this morning. They’re writing us off, which is fine with me,” Henson said in a way that suggested it was about as fine with him as Grant Gibbs’ slap at his injured wrist on Sunday. “We’re going to come out there, play hard and we’re still going to be the Carolina team that we were this year.”
Then in came Harrison Barnes. The notoriously stoic sophomore came out contrary to form, firing on all cylinders. And he was the most direct in his ESPN critique:
“Our confidence hasn’t changed at all. We feel like we have people that can step up,” Barnes said. “(ESPN personality) Doug Gottlieb, the person who knows everything, has his own statements. But we’re going to go out there and continue to play good basketball.”
“He couldn’t shoot free throws, so,” a reporter said.
“Among other things,” Barnes quipped.
It was somewhat ironic that the most pressure-laden sophomore arguably in UNC history was asked if the pressure was off now that Marshall could be out for the tournament. He raised an eyebrow incredulously.
“Overnight, we’ve just gotten kind of out of the race for a national championship, or people telling us – your friend Doug Gottlieb – we’re going to go back to Chapel Hill and not going to New Orleans,” Barnes said. “We just keep going. Whether the spotlight’s on us or not, we’re just going to continue to play basketball and continue to do what we do.”
An ESPN producer then told Barnes he had Gottlieb’s cell phone number and asked what he wanted him to text to Gottlieb. “Just text him, see if he can get that flight over to St. Louis. I’d love to meet him,” Barnes said dryly.
Even Barnes had jokes, talking about White’s first few experiences at point guard (“When he first got out there, we were a little scared that he might have an anxiety attack and just pass out”). And he had praise for Watts, who is adored by all of his teammates.
“(Watts) does a lot of stuff that doesn’t necessarily show up on the court, just in terms of his leadership and his ability to help guys through their slumps and bring the freshmen in and really teach them the ropes of Carolina basketball,” Barnes said. “I think there would be a learning curve if he’s trying to go out there and get 10 assists a game. That’s hard to do for anybody. But in terms of just going out there and just running the offense, just being calm and collected, I feel like he can do that right now.”
All three of them were asked if they still believed, or if they wondered if all the injuries were some sort of a sign. The question made Zeller bring up his faith, something he rarely does in front of the assembled media.
“They never said it was easy. God’s got a plan for each and every one of us. You never know what it is. You’ve just got to keep going with what (God has) given you,” Zeller said. “There’s a scripture verse that says, ‘He’ll never give you anything that you can’t handle,’ and that’s the way we’ve got to look at it. We’ve got to make sure that we put our resources in and we try to prepare as much as possible with what we have and (God will) take care of us. If it’s meant to be, it is and if it’s not, it’s not.”
Some were less philosophical. “Nothing really surprises me anymore,” Barnes responded with a shrug. “That’s just the nature of the beast, really. You just have to roll with the punches and keep going.”
Their head coach accidentally cut Barnes’s press conference short by walking into it mid-answer. While Williams didn’t reference ESPN or Doug Gottlieb, he alluded to the extraordinarily large chip that he has always had on his shoulder.
“We had a scouting report about somebody that said, ‘He’s not very athletic, but he is aggressive.’ I said to my team, ‘That’s me, because I’m not very athletic but by golly, I am aggressive.’ Everybody said, ‘Whoa, what kind of practice are we going to have today?’” Williams said.
“I do love challenges, but I would love my challenge a lot more if I had that point guard out there, there’s no question about that.” As he reiterated repeatedly, though: “It doesn’t make any difference. We’ve got to play.”
Williams even had an epic rant when asked for one time too many about Marshall’s possible status on Friday. It can only be done justice in totality:
“I have no idea. I know you don’t like that but guys, I’m being truthful with you. If (Marshall) comes running in here right now and says, ‘God, I can play!’ I’ll say, ‘Well let’s talk about that.’ But he’s in a frickin’ cast from his thumb to his back. It’s not quite that big. It looked that big when he came out of surgery.
“I know I’m not helping you, but you’re asking me to do – I’ll tell you what. We’ll do it this way. He’s going to start the game, and he’s going to play. All right? Now what’s going to happen Friday night? ‘Damn liar, he told us all that stuff!’ Now, if I say, ‘There is no way in Hades that he is going to play’ and he plays, what are y’all going to say? ‘Well, why didn’t he tell us that?’ You’ve got me between a rock and a hard place.
“I cannot give you any answers. I’ve given everybody all the answers that I can give because I’ve said honestly: I. Do. Not. Know.” He then followed it up with an actual giggle.
It was clear how overwhelmed he still was, scrambling to find a way to replace Marshall in just three days, when asked if the pressure to win a national title was off.
“I’m putting probably more pressure on myself right now because I’ve got to try to come up with a way to replace somebody that is darned hard to replace,” Williams said. “It’s mind-boggling the kind of thought processes I’m going through right now. So I don’t feel that there’s any pressure taken off, but the pressure that I put on myself is what has driven me all the time anyway.”
Some of Williams’ residual stress was also from coping with the heaviness of it all. He was near tears twice, once when talking about what it was like to enter the x-ray room and find a red-eyed, devastated Marshall.
The second came when talking about how strong his team has been. “I’ve got a bunch of kids that have handled a lot of adversity,” Williams said, proceeding to list all the injuries, departures and suspensions that have plagued the team over the last two seasons.
“My team has been pretty dadgum special with their toughness. So I hope they don’t just rely on Ole Roy, because I’m not good enough. They’ve got to help me.”
And they seem ready to do that. Like their head coach, they have a chip on their shoulder (thanks, in part evidently, to Doug Gottlieb). Like their coach, they can find humor in almost any situation. And like their coach, they still believe: both in themselves and in each other.