UNC-Lipscomb matchup forces old teammates to put friendship on hold

The Tar Heels' Theo Pinson and the Bisons' Michael Buckland won a state title together in 2014, but today they'll take the court as rivals in the opening round of the NCAA tourney

Lipscomb guard Michael Buckland answers questions about his team's NCAA tournament matchup against UNC at a press conference Thursday. (Peter Casey/USA TODAY Sports)

CHARLOTTE — Lipscomb is making its first NCAA tournament appearance, and at least one member of the Bisons clearly has a lot to learn about how things work this time of year.

First and foremost, there are no friends once the games begin. Everyone in the bracket is an enemy with the potential to end your season in disappointment.

Lipscomb’s Michael Buckland found that out firsthand on Selection Sunday when after learning that his Bisons would be playing North Carolina in the first round of the NCAA’s West Region, he posted a shoutout to his former high school teammate and Tar Heels star Theo Pinson.

Pinson’s lack of response to the photo of the two players hugging in celebration of their 2014 state championship at High Point’s Wesleyan Christian Academy spoke volumes.

“We’re not friends right now,” Pinson said Thursday, only half-jokingly. “He’s tried to reach out to me, but we’re not really cool right now.”

Buckland was a sophomore on that 3A state title team at Wesleyan Christian that also included former Duke star Harry Giles, while Pinson was a senior already committed to UNC. Since the two have remained close despite going their separate ways, Buckland isn’t taking Pinson’s snub personally.

“I reached out to him in a kind way and if he doesn’t want to respond, that’s his choice,” the 6-foot-5 High Point native said. “I know we work out together in the summers, so there’s no beef there.”

Buckland’s temporarily interrupted relationship with Pinson isn’t the only source of personal conflict the Bisons’ starting point guard has as a result of today’s matchup against UNC at Charlotte’s Spectrum Center.

To say he’s a Tar Heel born and bred wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration.

A native of High Point, he grew up rooting for UNC and celebrated its 2009 national championship team from the Smith Center stands. His sister Megan played basketball on coach Sylvia Hatchell’s women’s team.

As much he loved the Tar Heels, Buckland was realistic enough to know that he didn’t have the game to play for coach Roy Williams’ team. In the end, he chose Lipscomb, a small private Christian school in Nashville, for reasons other than basketball.

“I definitely grew up around here wanting to go to school around here at one of the big schools, but ultimately what made the decision for me was the faith-based community at Lipscomb,” he said. “Not just with the school, but with the basketball program in general.”

It’s been a good fit for the 6-foot-5 sophomore.

After a solid freshman year off the bench, Buckland has made 27 starts, averaging 7.5 points. 4.3 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game in helping the Bisons to a 23-9 record and their history-making NCAA tournament bid.

His success is not a surprise to his former high school teammate.

“He was always trying to learn and trying to get better,” Pinson said. “You could tell by anything, he’d do it the right way. He was always the guy who would stay in the gym late, trying to get extra shots up so he could get better. He deserves this. He’s a really good guy and I’m really proud of him.”

Like his friendship with Pinson, Buckland and his family have had to put their affinity for the Tar Heels on hold until after the game is over. Even his sister will be wearing the Bisons’ colors of purple and gold in the stands for today’s game.

It will be awkward.

“I grew up a Carolina fan, I can’t lie,” Buckland said.

But at the same time, he plans to make the best of the opportunity and have some fun.

“You dream about being able to come in here and play with the best of the best,” Buckland said. “When you realize that you’re on this stage, then you go make the most of it and go try to win the game.

“It’s not like we’re playing Carolina and we’re going to go out there and just have fun. We’re going to go out there and try to win the game.”