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 Henrik Rodl, UNC ‘93

New Orleans would be different from Indianapolis. I could feel that Sunday on the trip back from the Meadowlands after winning the NCAA East Regional. And I knew it even more on Tuesday when we gathered for practice after taking Monday off.

We all went crazy two years before when we beat Temple to earn that trip to the Final Four. It had been nine years since Carolina had been to the Final Four, and the pressure to return had gotten pretty intense. It seemed like getting to Indy was the victory that year. We practice hard but it almost seemed like that whole week was one big victory lap – we were taking a bow for just getting back to the Final Four.

Ten of 15 players on this year’s roster were seniors and juniors and had been to Indianapolis, and we approached Final Four practice week with a much more business-like demeanor. Our practices were just like they’d been all year – enough cracking on each other to have fun and keep things loose, but when Coach Smith blew the whistle to start practice it was serious business. That continuity told me we weren’t in for any surprises when we got to New Orleans.

Coach Smith downplayed the rematch with Coach Williams of Kansas from the beginning of the week. That had been a much bigger issue two years before when the seniors had been freshmen and Coach Williams was still at Carolina. This year, I was the only player on the team with any connection to Coach Williams. I was introduced to Carolina basketball about nine years before when Coach Williams taught at a camp in Germany. He had tapes of Carolina games and that’s when I became a Tar Heel and Michael Jordan fan. I had never experienced anyone who could be friendly but tough as well. I respected him from the outset and wanted to learn more about this place called North Carolina.

We didn’t leave for New Orleans until Friday morning, Coach preferring to stay in Chapel Hill, practice and go to class and not get caught up in all the hoopla in New Orleans. I think that was a smart thing to do – a very smart thing to do. The environment – the bars, the music, the food, the crowds – could make it difficult to concentrate on basketball. We landed in New Orleans, went straight to the Superdome and, after practice and press conferences, we checked into the hotel InterContinental. The atmosphere started to sink in as a jazz band in the lobby was playing our fight song when we arrived. Almost immediately, some of us walked down St. Charles Avenue, across Canal Street and over to Bourbon Street.

Coach Smith occasionally will put us in a hotel away from the crowd if he’s worried about distractions. We stayed well out of town in Indianapolis in ’91, but New Orleans was so jammed full of people there wasn’t anywhere else to go. So we stayed at the Carolina-designated hotel, with our athletic department staff, Educational Foundation group and fans. Our fans are great, don’t get me wrong, but it was a change having to sign autographs every time you went for a team meal or get off the elevator. It was especially difficult for guys like George Lynch and Eric Montross. I give those guys credit for being patient with all the fans’ requests and still being able to keep their focus and not get side-tracked.

Scott Cherry and Pat Sullivan did their excellent job of keeping us loose in the locker room before the Kansas game. After we’re all dressed and waiting for the coaches to come in, Scott and Pat would start throwing a basketball around like they’re the Harlem Globetrotters. The problem is they’re not as good as the Globetrotters, and there is no telling where the ball would end up. Usually, it bounced off a wall or someone’s head. It was good for a few laughs and a diversion.

Coach Smith came in a few minutes before we went out for warm-ups. He went over a few key points and then said, “If you don’t know how to play basketball by now, there’s not much time to teach you.”

Fortunately, he taught us pretty well. The Kansas game was a solid, all-around performance. There were no nerves like two years before in Indianapolis, no long scoring droughts that killed us then. We got out of the block well, withstood a little run by Kansas midway through the first half, then maintained the lead the rest of the game. Donald Williams hit a big 3-pointer with us ahead by three and 2:43 left in the game. That lifted the margin to six points and was the key basket. The final was Carolina 78, Kansas 68.

Afterward we dressed and watched the first half of the Kentucky-Michigan game in some seats designated for us behind media row. That was one of the few times we were able to relax and have some fun. We turned around and waved to our families and friends in the stands. Then at halftime we went back to the locker to get our bags and leave. Walking out, all the Carolina fans on the far side saw us and gave us a standing ovation. That was worth a few goose bumps.

We had no strong feelings about who we’d like to play Monday night in the championship game. But once Michigan won the second semifinal in overtime, I guess there was a consensus of satisfaction for the match-up. We’d show in Hawaii we were as solid as Michigan and everyone relished the opportunity to play them again.

Coach Smith did a classy thing Sunday before practice at the Superdome. NCAA officials had asked each coach to bring his five starters to the press conference, but Coach Smith said he’d like for Pat, Kevin Salvadori and me to go as well. We played eight players  pretty consistently all season, and Coach was kind of making a statement that a team doesn’t get to the championship game with just five players. We should have taken all 15 players.

NEXT: Rodl’s diary on the NCAA Championship game against the Fab Five.