CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The North Carolina basketball team gathered on a track on its Chapel Hill campus in late August and prepared for its standard 12-minute run test when Jonas Sahratian, the team’s strength and conditioning coach, declared that the standard had been changed. Instead of requiring the Tar Heels to complete the usual six and a half laps in the allotted time, the bar was set at seven full go-arounds.
An additional half-loop, even while the players’ legs began to feel like they were filled with sand, was not itself an issue. It was the thought of doing it right then, the specter of going above and beyond with zero time to prepare mentally, that might have constituted the real problem. In other seasons, the Tar Heels would have dreaded this; in this case, Sahratian’s proclamation created no anxiety.
His players did not only accept the challenge, they craved it. “It was just not looking forward to the pain that was going to occur,” junior center Kennedy Meeks said of the team’s conditioning reticence in previous seasons. “I think we embrace the pain now.”
Meeks could not have known then how important that attitude would become, in very short order. It was certainly agonizing for the Tar Heels to learn Wednesday that leading scorer Marcus Paige would miss three to four weeks with a broken bone in his right (non-shooting) hand—news that dropped just one week after coach Roy Williams had declared at ACC media day that the senior guard, a preseason All-America, was as healthy as he’d been in more than a year.
But should the Tar Heels match the expectations heaped upon them—they are No. 1 in Sports Illustrated’s preseason top 25—it will likely be due to their ability to repurpose rough times into something useful, instead of treating them as something to pout about. Though it reached the ACC tournament final and the NCAA tournament Sweet 16 last season, North Carolina also lost 12 games, its third straight year of double-digit defeats. It has been answering questions about an academic fraud scandal at the university that may or may not result in severe penalties for several athletic programs, including men's basketball. If that isn’t searing pain, it’s at minimum a lingering soreness.
This, though, is the working theory: the Tar Heels have talent (10 players were former top-100 recruits) and experience (eight returning players saw action in 30 or more games last year, six of whom are now juniors or seniors). And they might be even better after another off-season of conditioning, weight lifting and skill work. But nothing was as helpful as the callus formed by exasperation and regret, which could give this particular group the hardness it needs to pursue a national championship.
After Carolina’s season ended last March with a 79-72 loss to Wisconsin in the Sweet 16 in Los Angeles, a game the Heels had led by seven points with 11 minutes remaining, Williams stood before his players and attempted to turn their disappointment into desire. I hope you remember this feeling, the Tar Heels coach recalled saying. Use this as motivation, use this as fuel, and be willing to work harder and pay more of a price so you don’t have this feeling again.
This was not cutting edge rhetoric. Every coach touches on some version of that speech in the locker room after a season dies. It hit home with Williams’s team though. It was North Carolina’s fifth loss by seven or fewer points in 2014-15, not including an overtime defeat at Louisville in a game the Heels had led by 18 in the second half. Among those narrow losses were all three meetings with the teams that reached the NCAA tournament final: two against Duke (92-90 in overtime on Feb. 18 in Durham and 84-77 on March 7 in Chapel Hill) and then the season-ender against Wisconsin on March 26.
When the Blue Devils and Badgers met for the title in Indianapolis 11 days later, Justin Jackson tried to exercise remote control from his dorm room: He vowed not to watch the game. But then he heard it was close, and he was bored, so Carolina’s starting freshman small forward tuned in. And he endured the trauma that can come with watching blocked content. “The hardest thing was to know we could have been there,” Jackson said recently. “Knowing we could have beaten both of those teams. We had so many games where we could have put ourselves in a better situation last year.”
Using frustration as motivation might be most important to Jackson. The lanky 6’8” forward was the nation’s No. 9 recruit in the Class of 2014 according to the RSCI, a composite of several recruiting services, and he has the greatest opportunity for growth on the team. While players like Paige, Meeks and senior forward Brice Johnson are each first-team all-ACC candidates, it’s fair to wonder just how much higher their ceiling is after playing a combined 5,476 minutes to date. Jackson, however, is not fully formed, in any sense.
He’s officially up seven pounds to 200 as a sophomore after downing five or six meals a day plus protein shakes. Just as crucial will be beefing up his offensive consistency. Jackson made 45.3% of his field goal attempts overall and just 20.4% from three-point during his first 26 games while averaging 9.5 points per game. The last game in that stretch came on Feb. 18, when he shot 1-of-8 from the field and scored just two points against Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium. “In high school, even if I went through a slump, I was still better than most of the guys I was playing against,” Jackson said. “In college, you’re either as good as the next guy, or they’re better than you. For that 20-something games, I couldn’t get over that hump.”
Beginning with Carolina’s next game three days later, a blowout win over Georgia Tech, Jackson shot 52.1% from the field and 44.7% from three while averaging 13.4 points per contest. That turnaround suggests he had the resolve to resist making a total overhaul—“I didn’t change anything,” he said—and that he has the raw ability to produce a significant leap in 2015-16.
“Going through that learning curve made it look like I didn’t know what I was doing, because I wasn’t able to score the ball like I’m used to,” Jackson said. “With that, it’s just doing the same thing you’ve always done, never straying from it because it’s not working. Just keep working hard and doing what you need to do, and everything will come around.”
Given Paige’s injury, it's worth acknowledging that staying healthy will be just as important as staying positive for North Carolina. At ACC media day on Oct. 28, Williams said Paige was back to the form of his All-America sophomore season, when he averaged 17.5 points, before foot and ankle maladies beset him as a junior and contributed to his scoring average dropping to 14.1. How quickly and how effectively Paige returns to that level following his injury will be pivotal.
The Tar Heels also need more from sophomore Theo Pinson, who averaged just 12.5 minutes as a freshman and missed the entire month of February after breaking his left foot in a January win at Wake Forest. The 6’6” Pinson can add needed depth on the wing and possibly be a stopper who enhances a defense that ranked 51st nationally in adjusted efficiency—but, as Williams has pointed out, Pinson didn’t play competitive basketball between having surgery on that foot in May and the start of preseason camp in early October.
And then there are the NCAA-related uncertainties. The penalties, if any, from the academic fraud mess cannot be handicapped as they relate to men’s basketball—which was not charged with any specific violations in the 59-page notice of allegations released in June. But they have handicapped the Tar Heels nonetheless. “Our program has suffered already,” Williams said, alluding to negative recruiting in particular, while also being clearly perturbed at the glacial movement toward a resolution to a scandal that is more than five years old. UNC's modest 2015 recruiting class comprised guard Kenny Williams, the No. 89 player in the country per Rivals.com, and three-star forward Luke Maye. Their top target, five-star forward Brandon Ingram, signed with Duke after saying publicly that he would have landed in Chapel Hill if not for the NCAA cloud.
It would be best for North Carolina to err on the side of making a run now, of course, before the NCAA digs any trenches between the Tar Heels and their title aspirations down the line. This is a school that has now gone three straight years without either a conference regular season or tournament title or Final Four appearance, matching its longest drought in half a century. There is a simmering now-or-never sensibility with such a veteran team, given the larger context.
“It’s a good opportunity for us,” Meeks said. “It’s something we’ve been waiting for for a long time.”
“If we don’t win the national championship, I’m not going to jump off the top of the Smith Center and I don’t expect any of our players to,” Williams said. “But I do expect them to give me everything they can.”
Last week, the Tar Heels' coach said he got exactly that in 16 of the first 17 practices for his club. That reliability of effort is mandatory for a title contender. It’s the way a team with purpose acts.
North Carolina won 25, 24 and 26 games, respectively, in the last three seasons. It’s hardly a desultory time in Chapel Hill, but the Tar Heels could have done more in recent years. They would surely concede that much, as painful as it may be, because they’ve discovered that a little agony might take them a long way.