All season long’s “Hoop It Up” will be republishing select excerpts from Return To The Top on the 20th Anniversary of Dean Smith’s 2nd NCAA title season in 1993. Check back on Monday of each week for the next RTTT.

By Travis Stephenson, UNC ‘93

When classes began in the fall of 1992, we continued gathering mid-afternoon at the gym to lift weights and play pick-up games. We also had to make that horrible run up Laurel Hill Road. This is a beautiful neighborhood not far from the Smith Center, but it’s up, up up, up. Every time you turn the corner you see another hill. That’s one good thing about graduating–Laurel Hill’s out of my life forever.

We got to know the freshmen better and they all seemed to fit in well. You get a first impression of someone on a recruiting visit, and you hope that turns out correctly. You hope no one will come in with a bad attitude and cause problems. None of these guys did.

Larry Davis showed from Day One how great of an athlete and scorer he is, and he began working hard to refine that talent to what it needs to be for Carolina. Dante Calabria has a chance to be a Jeff Lebo kind of player; he’s got a sweet shot. Ed Geth is an easy-going guy who everyone took to immediately. And Serge Zwikker, once the decision was made to red-shirt him, showed a great attitude to begin spending hours in the weight room.

An interesting thing happened in early fall. Of course, the coaches can’t watch us at all before November 1, but Coach Smith apparently got the word that there was a lot of sloppy basketball being played during those full-court games, and he instituted a new rule. Four-on-four half-court games only.

This upset a lot of guys at first. Some quit coming for about a week. Coach was concerned there was too much dunking, too many behind-the-back passes, too much junk. In one of our senior meetings, we brought it up with Coach. One of our concerns was, “Coach, we’re not getting in shape by playing half court.”

He was pretty quick with a response. “Don’t worry, I’ll get you in shape come November first.”

So we kept playing four-on-four half court, except when some of the pro players would drop by, like J.R Reid and Kenny Smith. Then we could go full court. Otherwise it was half court only. Coach’s reasoning was pretty simple, actually. You have to work harder in a half court game. In full court, you can outrun your guy to the basket for a layup. On defense, you can hang back a trip. You get more “street ball” in a full-court game, which isn’t what Carolina basketball is about. In half court, your man on defense is already there, so you have to work harder to get open. There are no fast breaks, so you have to play defense every single basket.

Finally, the beginning of practice rolled around. Someone suggested having our first practice on at midnight on November 1, and Coach Smith said okay. It was a lot of fun and a pretty interesting atmosphere with people coming to the gym in Halloween costumes. There were goblins and vampires and monsters all over the place. Each of the seniors spoke to the crowd, and Henrik Rodl’s words stood out the most.

Henrik got up and said, “If this team plays up to its capabilities, it could be scarrrry!” The combination of all the masks and costumes and Henrik’s words cracked us all up.

It was obvious when practice started we were going to have a lot of intense competition. One drill that became the most concentrated was our four-on-four defense drill, and I think it set the tone for the kind of defense we would play all season. We’d have three teams of four players each, and after a round-robin the team with the fewest baskets allowed got to watch while the other guys ran sprints. Those battles were fierce. They were taken very, very seriously. The second half of our Florida State game at home, when we came from 22 down to win, was like that every day. Sometimes at halftime of a game, Coach might say, “If you’d play as hard as you do in practice, we’d be 15 ahead.”

At the beginning of practice on November 1, the coaches handed out photos of the basketball court at the New Orleans Superdome with the words, “1993 NCAA Champions North Carolina.” This was unusual for Coach Smith, who usually took the season one game at a time. Everyone put a photo in his locker, and I think everyone took one home. I put one on our refrigerator at the apartment. Several times a day, every day, we were reminded of what our ultimate goal for the year was. Nothing else would do.

“Are we there yet?” became something of a rallying cry for this team and sometimes was Coach Smith’s thought for the day, which we had to memorize, along with offensive and defensive points of emphasis, before every practice.

Are we there yet?

We knew the answer would be “No” until we cut down the nets in New Orleans.

NEXT: Matt Wenstrom’s diary on the characters that made up the 1993 UNC team.