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Tar Heels have spent years building to Final Four moment


    North Carolina forward Theo Pinson laughed as he stretches during a practice session today.

GLENDALE, Ariz. >> When North Carolina takes the court for Saturday’s Final Four game against Oregon, the Tar Heels will lean on a lineup filled with upperclassmen who have played together for years and know exactly what to expect.

They’ll know how to manage the pressure awaiting on college basketball’s biggest stage. There will be no surprises about playing in a massive football stadium that can make for some tricky depth perception when launching a shot.

That makes the Tar Heels — who played to the final night before losing last year’s title on a buzzer-beating 3-pointer — a bit of a throwback in a time when blueblood programs frequently have young rosters and a revolving door of one-and-done talents or transfers.

“It’s big,” junior Justin Jackson said. “Nothing really can break us apart honestly. We’ve seen everything. We’ve been through everything.”

Take a look at UNC’s roster, and that experience stands out. The Tar Heels (31-7) have started at least four upperclassmen in all but one game this year, while the current starting quintet is three juniors and a pair of seniors.

Behind that is a senior in Nate Britt, who can play either guard position.

And of that group, three players — Jackson, fellow junior Joel Berry II and senior Isaiah Hicks — were on the court for Villanova’s walk-off 3-pointer in the title game. And Jackson (112), Berry (74) and senior Kennedy Meeks (115) all have at least 70 career starts.

“They have an advantage because they’ve been here and know what to expect,” Oregon guard Dylan Ennis said. “However, we also have an advantage because we want to taste playing in a national championship game.

“Just because they’ve been there doesn’t mean they’re going to win it, and we’ve got that underdog mentality.”

North Carolina’s growth has also come because there hasn’t been a lot of unexpected roster turnover in the previous four seasons.

UNC hasn’t lost a transfer since 2011. Only three players have left early in the previous four seasons to pursue professional careers — Reggie Bullock in 2013, James Michael McAdoo in 2014 and J.P. Tokoto in 2015 — while a fourth (P.J. Hairston) was lost after two seasons due to NCAA violations.

What’s left is a cohesive group that has played a ton of games together and has stayed loose even in the most pressure-packed of moments.

“Just everybody gets along and everybody understands the task at hand, and that’s winning national championships,” junior Theo Pinson said. “We understand we have the best chance here of doing that. And we just do our best of getting along with each other and accepting everybody and being ourselves.”

The other variable is the lack of one-and-done talent. While Kentucky, Duke and Kansas have had a steady stream of players who arrive as top-tier NBA prospects before they’ve ever played a college game, UNC hasn’t brought in one of those candidates since Harrison Barnes in 2010 — partly due to the academic scandal that has hung over the school for years and raised the possibility of eventual NCAA sanctions.

Coach Roy Williams pointed out today he has tried to recruit many only to come up missing on those targets in recent years.

“I’d love to have a great mix, would be my best choice — to have guys that you think are going to be around three or four years,” Williams said “But you always like to have that talent of the one-and-dones as well.

“When you play golf some guys like to hit a draw, some guys like to hit a fade, you’re still trying to get to the middle of the fairway. That’s the way it is in basketball; you choose how you can recruit successfully and try to stick with that and try to get the best players you can that are willing to make those sacrifices.”

Ask current players about the value of having a core group of players who developed together, and they’ll point to all the little things that become second nature without even being discussed.

Berry mentioned having veterans serve as examples to younger players on how to communicate with one another on the defensive end. For Pinson, it was as simple as knowing all about where one teammate is most comfortable catching the ball or how high another can get up to haul in a lob pass.

It’s an example why the Tar Heels are just fine with the status quo.

“There’s definitely some great teams with one-and-dones and stuff like that,” Jackson said. “But for us, that works best.”

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