Rare is the time that Roy Williams apologizes to reporters for much of anything, but he did on a recent Wednesday night. He walked into the postgame interview room at North Carolina with a ready explanation about what had taken him so long to emerge following UNC’s victory against Bucknell.
Usually the in-and-out type with his players after games, Williams, in his 15th season as the Tar Heels’ coach, needed some extra time. He hadn’t yet had a chance to discuss some of the logistics surrounding UNC’s extended trip west, which begins on Monday with a game at Stanford.
“I hadn’t met with the team about what’s coming up,” Williams said after the 93-81 victory against Bucknell. “... We had to give them the itinerary and let them know what’s going to be going on.”
Trips like these are nothing new for Williams. Every four years, he embraces the opportunity to take his team to Hawaii for the Maui Invitational, as he did last season, and in 2012 (and four years before that). In 2014 he took the Tar Heels to the Bahamas for the Battle 4 Atlantis.
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Trips like these are nothing new, either, for UNC’s oldest, most experienced players. Joel Berry, the senior point guard, has spent Thanksgiving in Hawaii and in the Bahamas with his teammates. Anyone who was on the team a season ago has been to Maui.
And yet trips like these are new for this particular UNC team, which includes a mix of the older – guys like Berry and Luke Maye, the junior forward – and six freshmen who are trying to acclimate to college life, and to a team whose most experienced players won a national championship a season ago.
UNC heads west with the obvious goal of winning basketball games, both on Monday at Stanford and in the three games to follow in Portland, Ore., in the PK80, a Nike-sponsored tournament that is something of an 80th birthday celebration of Phil Knight, the Nike founder. Beyond the obvious, though, the Tar Heels hope to return home more closely bonded than they are now.
“With having all these new guys come in, we need some time where we’re traveling and getting to know those guys even more,” Berry said on Wednesday, after the victory against Bucknell. “I mean, we know them now but you never know – you can always learn something new about somebody.”
Regardless of what happens in March, or early April, this will be UNC’s longest trip of the season, both by distance and time. Williams took his team west on Friday, three days before the game at Stanford. The Tar Heels won’t return until a week from Monday, the day after the conclusion of the PK80.
And so the Tar Heels will not lack the time to learn new things about each other. They will share a Thanksgiving meal together. They will share every other meal together. They will share rooms together. For UNC’s freshmen, it will be their first real road trip. For UNC’s more experienced players, it will provide a chance to lead, like they were once led.
During UNC’s past two seasons, both of which ended in the Final Four, the Tar Heels benefited from enviable team chemistry – the kind of which coaches often attempt to build but sometimes find difficult to sustain. Other teams might have been more talented in those seasons, but few teams, if any, could have been as close on the court, and off, as UNC.
Rebuilding that dynamic, or continuing it, is one of the Tar Heels’ early-season challenges. It’s as important as any on-the-court concerns, if not more so. During the 2015-16 season, then-seniors Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson built that chemistry, which had lacked, at times, during the previous season.
An experienced nucleus of Berry, Theo Pinson, Justin Jackson, Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks carried over the dynamic last season. And now it’s Berry, Pinson and Maye passing down to this team what they’ve learned in the past. In many ways, the team-building began in the summer, with the arrival of the freshman class.
There were the usual summer pick-up games then, and the gatherings for meals and other outings. It was no different than what happens at a lot of schools, but a lot of schools – at least among UNC’s primary competitors – haven’t returned the kind of nuclei the Tar Heels have year after year in recent seasons.
“It’s just the type of people we have in the locker room,” Pinson said recently, describing what makes UNC’s chemistry unique. “I think that’s what it comes down to. We don’t have any guys just, like, after practice you don’t see them. They just disappear. …
“And it’s the same thing this year. Guys are just so down to earth and we don’t have any guys that’s trying to isolate themselves from the team.”
Even if UNC did have players like that, there will be no hiding, no isolation, during the next week. The Tar Heels will essentially do everything together – basketball and all of the other things that go into building a successful, cohesive team.
“Just playing basketball for 11 days straight is something that we need, not having an off day,” Berry said.
There will be off days between games, at least. After the game at Stanford on Monday, when Williams will coach against his old assistant Jerod Haase, the Tar Heels travel to Portland. The tournament there starts Thursday, takes a break on Saturday and resumes with its final games on Sunday.
By the time the Tar Heels return, they will have learned a thing or 100 about each other.
UNC at Stanford
When: 11:30 p.m. Monday
Where: Stanford, Calif.