NSJ College Team of the Year: Tar Heels find redemption in ’17

UNC’s title exorcised the demons of the previous year

Tar Heels forward Theo Pinson celebrates after defeating Gonzaga in the championship game of the 2017 NCAA Men's Final Four at University of Phoenix Stadium. (Bob Donnan— / USA Today Sports)

Nobody knows for sure whether Babe Ruth really called his shot when he pointed toward the ivy-covered wall of Chicago’s Wrigley Field before stepping into the batter’s box in Game 5 of the 1932 World Series.

It became an implied gesture when the New York Yankees slugger hit the next pitch out of the park.

The same can be said for last year’s North Carolina basketball team.

The Tar Heels didn’t go out of their way to talk about their goal of winning the national championship that so painfully eluded them in 2016. In fact, they did their best to downplay their quest for redemption,

But it always seemed to follow them around like a silent shadow until, like Ruth, they hit a home run by beating Gonzaga at University of Phoenix Stadium to secure their elusive title.

Because of that victory and the year-long process that led up to it, UNC has been chosen as the “College Team of the Year” in North Carolina by the staff of the North State Journal.

“This is what we’ve worked for,” point guard Joel Berry said immediately after being named the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player. “The ups and downs that we’ve had? It’s all worth it. I can’t even describe my feeling right now, but I’m just glad I was able to do something with this team because of the personality and what we went through, I think we just deserved it.”

The Tar Heels’ championship journey that ended in Arizona on the first Monday in April began exactly one year earlier in Houston the moment Villanova’s Kris Jenkins hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to break their hearts and win the 2016 title.

Though UNC returned a solid core of talent from the squad that barely missed raising a banner to the Smith Center rafters, it was by no means a lock to get back to the Final Four — let alone finishing it off with a happy ending this time around.

There were questions about rebounding, leadership and offensive production thanks to the loss of first-team All-ACC big man Brice Johnson and four-year starting point guard Marcus Paige. Even coach Roy Williams wondered aloud before the season began whether his six returning veterans had what it takes to become a champion.

“Those six guys who were in the games at crunch time, that’s really going to help them,” he said. “But now they’ve got to step up there when the defense is aimed at them. That’s a huge difference in basketball. That’s where these guys have got to take their step.”

As it turned out, they did.

Junior wing Justin Jackson made the transition from secondary option to ACC Player of the Year, slimmed-down senior center Kennedy Meeks finally blossomed into a dominating big man, Berry eased seamlessly into Paige’s leadership role and former sixth man Isaiah Hicks became a solid — if somewhat inconsistent — starter while Theo Pinson willingly became the team’s do-it-all energy guy and defensive stopper.

It was a combination that, when combined with the contributions of role players Nate Britt, Tony Bradley and Luke Maye off the bench, came together even more stylishly than one of their coach’s custom-tailored Alexander Julian suits.

That doesn’t mean UNC’s road to redemption wasn’t without its speed bumps and detours.

The plot complications began even before the season did when Pinson broke his foot. Just as he returned to the lineup in mid-January, his replacement, Kenny Williams, suffered his own injury that sidelined him for the rest of the season.

Even after winning the ACC’s regular season title with a 14-4 record, the Tar Heels stumbled into the postseason after losing to Duke in the conference tournament semifinals.

Their hopes took another hit in their opening NCAA tournament game when Berry suffered what would be the first of his two sprained ankles in an easy win against Texas Southern. Two days later, they got another scare when they rallied from five down with three minutes left to avoid elimination against Arkansas.

It was at that point destiny began to kick in.

A miracle last-second shot by unlikely hero Maye beat Kentucky for a trip to the Final Four. Offensive rebounds by Meeks and Pinson off missed free throws helped put away Oregon for a trip to the championship game.

Once there, UNC made sure it wouldn’t be disappointed again by overcoming a rash of fouls, Berry’s bad ankles and a Gonzaga team that had lost only once all season for a 71-65 victory sealed not by a swing for the fences, but by a Meeks blocked shot and a Jackson fast break dunk.

“One of our assistant coaches said, ‘Remember that moment and how we felt last year and we don’t want to do that again,’” Berry said. “That’s when we were locked in. We went out there and just gave it our all, literally, and we were able to come out with the win.”