'Redemption' group chat motivates UNC men's basketball ahead of NCAA Tournament

redemption

Justin Jackson (44) looks at the scoreboard as confetti falls after the national championship in 2016. The Tar Heels hope to take the title this year following the 77-74 loss to Villanova last year. 

GREENVILLE, S.C. — They’re united, all 15 members of the North Carolina men’s basketball team, by long bus rides and hotel rooms and entire afternoons spent sweating together in the Smith Center. But there’s something else that connects them, too: A group chat.

Or, more noteworthy, the name of their group chat. An all-encompassing title — and a subtle reminder — for why this UNC team has acted the way it has all season.

Redemption.

Credit goes to Justin Jackson, who first came up with the name last summer. But bear in mind — this was no recent development. This was months ago, long before he morphed into No. 1 seed UNC’s leading scorer and the eventual ACC Player of the Year. This was way back, almost a year ago now, when the sting from last season’s 77-74 national championship loss to Villanova was still a fresh wound.

“In the back of our minds, last year is always there,” Jackson said ahead of No. 1 seed UNC's Friday matchup against No. 16 seed Texas Southern in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. “So I felt like that might be a little fitting, especially for the guys who were coming back.”

UNC’s journey last season has been documented and detailed at length, from the injuries early in the season to the buzzer-beating 3-pointer that stole a potential national championship. Stolen, taken away — that’s how the Tar Heels still talk about that game, even all this time later.

“A goal that I wanted for myself was taken away,” Joel Berry said. “That’s what redemption means to me.”

Really, that’s what this season became about. Replace Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson; win the ACC regular season, then the conference tournament; earn a No. 1 seed; then battle all the way to the national championship game, again.

Essentially, run it back — only this time, finish the job.

And while it may seem small, the name of their group chat is a reminder of that mindset. Whether it’s about basketball or class or whatever else a group of college guys can debate, every text carries that same message — redemption — with it.

“All we’ve been thinking about all year is just getting back to the championship game,” Nate Britt said. “After the Duke game, guys were talking about, ‘Let’s get this thing going, let’s remember we’re on a mission to get what we didn’t get last year.’”

So now it begins, the chase back to that point. There will be stumbling blocks along the way, as there always are, when the team will either fortify or fold. The Tar Heels will traverse the country — if all goes according to plan — from Greenville to Memphis to Phoenix, steadily accumulating wins along the way. One after another after another, always in pursuit of the final sixth one that evaded them a year ago.

The whole time, that group chat will be alive and thriving. Maybe they’ll make lunch plans, as Kennedy Meeks is so notorious for doing. Or maybe Berry will switch his to ‘Do Not Disturb,’ as he does when the messages become overwhelming. Either way, they’ll text back and forth and every single time a message is sent, they’ll see it. Remember it.

And hopefully, act on it.

“It pops up on your phone every single day,” Berry said. “It’s just in your mind now.”

@BrendanRMarks

sports@dailytarheel.com

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