Current Date: Mon, 10 Mar 2014 11:14:48 -0400
Watching North Carolina’s junior varsity basketball team practice, it’s clear Wednesday afternoon isn’t optimal practice time.
Six of the team’s 13 players are in class, and the coaches are on the floor filling out a half-court scrimmage. A post player is wearing a pair of worn, gray New Balance sneakers. Others are wearing running shoes, and one assistant is playing in black loafers and dress pants.
They’re taking good shots, setting solid screens and making crisp passes. But the shoes, the absent players and the relaxed atmosphere are signs that this team shares little else with its varsity counterpart.
“None of us are going to play in the NBA,” said sophomore forward Sasha Seymore, who leads the team in scoring. “None of us are signing a TV contract. There aren’t screaming crowds at our games — there’s actually no crowd at our games.”
After the rule barring freshman from varsity competition fell by the wayside in 1972, former UNC coach Dean Smith kept the freshman team around as a way to develop young assistants and non-scholarship players. Now, it’s one of the only programs of its kind.
As a result, the team’s competition ranges from prep schools to junior colleges to Division II junior varsity teams. On Saturday, the Tar Heels will play Peace College in the Smith Center before the noon varsity game.
“The academies have J.V. teams, and some of the Ivy League schools do, but in terms of the ACC, we’re the only one,” said coach C.B. McGrath, who is also an assistant with the varsity team. “It’s unique, and it’s been around here forever.”
Tryouts for the team are open, and as a result, the roster’s 13 players come from varied backgrounds.
“We all have secondary reasons for playing,” Seymore said. “Some guys want it to be a release, some guys have always played basketball.
“But the one common thing, the one reason you try out for J.V. basketball and the one reason we’re all there is because we love to play.”
Learie Jones, an athletic junior forward, said the chance to play under the same banner as NBA stars and Hall of Fame coaches has something to do with it too.
“When I walked into tryouts for the first time, to walk into the Dean Dome, it was a rush,” he said. “And I realized that making the team was really something I wanted to do.”
A different game
Though they’re playing under the same roof as the varsity team, J.V. players live very different lives. They aren’t able to schedule classes around practice, partly because their practice schedule varies depending on McGrath’s obligations to the varsity team.
If the varsity team leaves for an away game at noon, McGrath holds practice at 7 a.m. If the varsity team finishes practice at 6 p.m., the J.V. team will take the court at 6:30 p.m.
But no matter when practice is, class is always an acceptable reason to miss it.
“That’s what I love about the team so much,” said Seymore, who is himself a Morehead-Cain Scholar. “Everybody who’s on the J.V. team got into Carolina first, so grades and education are always put first. It makes for a group of guys who are all intelligent, great teammates.”
Though most of them are good students, few of the players will be remembered for their athleticism.
“For me it’s different — not that the varsity guys aren’t coachable, but these guys are really coachable,” McGrath said. “These guys can’t depend on their physical gifts to get things done. They have to depend on out-thinking and making the right play.”
The team, which sports a 5-3 record with three games to play, still has fun. McGrath and his players described the team’s style as energetic rather than high-flying.
“We’re all over the place trying to have fun,” Jones said. “But when game time comes, we translate that into a lot of energy.”
A Tar Heel dream
McGrath said that every player on the J.V. team aspires to one day sit on the same bench as Roy Williams.
“Not for a whole lot of them is it really realistic,” he said, “but still, that’s why they’re choosing to continue their basketball careers: to have the chance to be on the end of the bench for Carolina.”
Current varsity players Denzel Robinson, James Manor, Frank Tanner and Wade Moody all played on the J.V. team last year.
The walk-on crew now known as “Code Blue” has made a name for itself in recent years on Twitter. Though self-deprecating humor has been at the root of that fame, members of the J.V. team speak of former teammates who made the leap to the varsity roster with a certain reverence.
“It gives people, I wouldn’t say a false sense of hope, but a little sense of hope that you could be playing for the University of North Carolina Tar Heels,” Jones said.
“It’s cool to say you could be even more a part of that than cheering in the student section.”
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