Did the Tar Heels just get jinxed in the NCAA Tournament?
At the start of Monday’s practice, North Carolina coach Roy Williams gathered his team in a huddle and pointed to Kenny Williams and Luke Maye. He asked them to recall a time in their lives where they had the most fun playing basketball.
The two seniors didn’t need long to think. Both of their answers were the same.
“The 2017 national championship run,” replied Maye and Kenny Williams, who were sophomores then.
Everyone else in the huddle began to smile. They had imagined what it might feel to win a national championship together.
“I said, ‘well we’ve got an opportunity to do something similar, but we’ve got to play great,” Roy Williams said.
That starts with Friday’s game against No. 16 seeded Iona (17-15), which will start at approximately 9:20 p.m. on TNT. Williams is 28-0 in NCAA tournament openers at Kansas and North Carolina.
For North Carolina (27-6), winning a national championship this season is certainly possible. The Tar Heels won 15 of their last 17 games, earned a share of the ACC regular season title, and are one of the hottest teams in college basketball. Against the three No. 1 seeds, the Tar Heels are 3-2.
This was the 17th time in school history that North Carolina has earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Johnson, who was held out of Monday and Tuesday’s practices for precautionary reasons with a minor shin injury, practiced Thursday in Columbus. He leads the Tar Heels in scoring this season, averaging 16.9 points per game. He is also shooting 50.9 percent from the floor.
Freshman Leaky Black, who has not played since spraining his left ankle in UNC’s Jan. 29 game against Georgia Tech, also practiced. Last week, Black said he wasn’t at full strength yet, but his ankle was getting better. He said he could play if called upon.
Williams said he likely won’t disrupt his current rotations unless Black, and sophomore forward Sterling Manley, who has also missed significant time with a sore knee, played much better than those ahead of them in the rotation.
The Tar Heels entered the NCAA tournament as a No. 2 seed last year. They won their first round game, but lost in the second round to No. 7 seeded Texas A&M 86-65 in Charlotte.
“It was a lot of inexperience, a lot of guys who didn’t know what to expect,” Kenny Williams said. “You get a team like Texas A&M with some guys who have been there for a couple years, I think that’s how they were able to take advantage of us.”
But this season feels different, players say. Most have been through the heart break of a loss in the first weekend.
“When we were in last year’s tournament, going into that, the team was coming off a national championship,” Johnson said. “So we were sitting at the top of the mountain, and everyone has to dethrone us. Now we’re back at the bottom trying to climb our way back at the top.”
Maye said the sting of last season’s loss remains as part of their fuel, and they won’t look past Iona. The Gaels, coached by Tim Cluess, received an automatic bid after beating Monmouth 81-60 in the MAAC tournament finals.
Iona is led by 6-6, 210-pound junior guard E.J. Crawford, who averages 17.9 points per game. The Gaels, which are riding a 10-game winning steak are a team that lives and dies by the 3. Nearly half (43.6 percent) of their shots are 3-point shots.
“You can’t be looking forward and you’ve got to play in the moment,” Maye said about the Tar Heels’ approach to this year’s tournament. “Iona has got a good team, and we’ve got to play our best game and hopefully that’s enough.”