As “Late Night with Roy” approaches, the excitement of the unique spectacle is palpable in Chapel Hill. Not only is it a time to celebrate the start of something new, it’s also a reminder of the previous season. In 2016, our glory had been stolen from us at the last second, a nightmare that followed us long after we pinched ourselves. This time, it will call to mind the proud and nostalgic moments of a triumphant journey Tar Heels fans will never forget.
Even as the Heels prepare for the 2017-18 season, it will be hard not to think about Luke Maye’s legendary shot, the emphatic dunks of Theo Pinson and Justin Jackson in the title game, Kennedy Meeks’ saving block, and Joel Berry’s MOP performance. I imagine these images will comfort us through some expected tough times this season.
We all know what to expect from those returning from last year’s roster, which includes everything we saw from them before, and more. The experience of Berry, Pinson, Maye and Seventh Woods will be paramount for a team that adds eight new faces, seven of which will be asked to contribute come game day. The upperclassmen will carry the extra load of helping the underclassmen along in an exciting, but extremely stressful time. Even if the talent of our newcomers is not up for debate, their ability to successfully transition into their new roles certainly is.
Late in the summer, before starting my eighth professional season here in Europe, I had the chance to join the Heels (as a bystander) for a 6 am conditioning test. The task was a 12-minute run, and it was the second attempt for a handful of freshmen to complete their required distance. These young men were already learning a hard lesson that life on a Roy Williams team is spent in the fast lane.
Adjusting to school, practice, and extracurricular activities is no small task for a teenager fresh out of high school. Carolina Basketball practice alone is enough to leave your head spinning. They will have a lot of things thrown at them in a very short period of time, and will be expected to focus and compete on a level most aren’t yet aware exists. To make things worse, the adjustment period doesn’t end there.
After getting accustomed to life on campus, your class load, social life and – of course – practice, you then step into the arena packed with 22,000 people for your first real games at the collegiate level. Then comes highly anticipated non-conference match-ups such as Michigan and Oregon, followed by the power-packed ACC. There are lessons to be learned all along the way, most of which come the hard way, with the occasional embarrassment sprinkled on top. Going back to my dorm room after a tough loss to Illinois in 2005 to see my shot getting blocked into the stands on ESPN highlights would be the first of many “not Top 10” moments.
But with all the difficulty that may lie ahead for our youngsters, as Coach would say, we can’t forget to take a look at all the amazing support they have around them. They have a coaching staff that is committed to the development of their team as basketball players, students and young men. There’s an upper class of experienced champions to help them navigate their transition and lead their quest for another appearance in the Final Four. Off course, a university that stands behind them, with fans that are unlike any other on the planet!
I wish nothing but the best for this team, a healthy season for everyone, smooth transition for the newcomers, and the strength to come together to fight every day as a collective unit. Play Hard. Play Smart. Play Together.