By Colton Bennett
Sports Capital Journalism Program
GLENDALE, Ariz. – This North Carolina team insists it is not looking for revenge. The Tar Heels aren’t seeking to exorcise last year’s demons. They want to win the national title, plain and simple.
Last year, North Carolina’s dreams of a title were ended by the simple flick of Kris Jenkins’ wrist. Jenkins drilled a game winning buzzer-beating 3-pointer for Villanova to break a 74-74 tie. Ever since, every returning Tar Heel, from players to coaches, has been bombarded with questions about how they have handled such tragedy.
With 10 players returning from last year’s squad, including three starters, it was easy to point to this season as a redemption tour of sorts. The Tar Heels finished the regular season 26-6, won the Atlantic Coast Conference regular season title, had the ACC Player of the Year in Justin Jackson, and earned a number one seed in the NCAA tournament. This team had all the makings for a team going on a revenge tour. Except that isn’t what they want.
“I mean, it’s a new game,” junior guard Theo Pinson said during Friday’s press conference. “It’s a new Final Four, new team. I think we’re just taking it one game at a time.”
Bryce Johnson, last season’s leading scorer, is a member of the Los Angeles Clippers. Third-leading scorer Marcus Paige, who hit the overshadowed, game-tying shot against Villanova, is playing in the NBA Development League. Losing two players of the caliber of Johnson and Paige caliber is not easy, even at a blue blood school like UNC. But Jackson and others were able to seamlessly step into their bigger roles due to the work put in during the offseason.
“…I always tell him I don’t like shooters. I like makers,” Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “And I think his teammates here would have a great deal of respect for how hard he’s worked since the season was over last year.”
Monday evening’s championship game against Gonzaga will mark the eighth time that two No. 1 seeds will meet in the final since the seeding process was introduced in 1979. Jackson is averaging 20.2 points in the last five NCAA tournament games. Gonzaga’s top-rated defense has held opponents to 34.6 percent shooting throughout the tournament, so Jackson’s shot-making ability will be critical for the Tar Heels if they want to seal this year’s title.
The returning member that is most obstinate that this season needs to stand on its own is senior forward Kennedy Meeks. Meeks is coming off a 25-point, 14 rebound game in the semifinal against Oregon. He remembers the pain from last year’s loss but doesn’t want it to distract him or his teammates from the now.
“Once you’re here you have to play, no matter what you’ve done in recent years,” Meeks said. “It doesn’t matter when was the last time you were here.”
That imperfect mantra could be part of the reason this North Carolina team was able to make its way all the way back to the championship game. The Tar Heels allowed late runs by Arkansas, Kentucky, and Oregon but were able to closeout each game and advance.
Dealing with this adversity could ultimately help the Tar Heels grind out a win against the Bulldogs. The game is destined to be bruising battle between Gonzaga senior Przemek Karnowski and freshman Zach Collins against North Carolina’s combination of Meeks, sophomore Luke Maye, senior Isaiah Hicks and freshman Tony Bradley.
Even if the Tar Heels are able to celebrate this year, Jackson doesn’t believe revenge would be the right word to describe the result.
“I don’t know how you can have revenge on a team that wasn’t the person to take it from you,” he said.