By the time head coach Roy Williams climbed the Werner ladder to consummate his third national championship win, the ink that penned North Carolina’s 2016-17 season had already dried.
After all, Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson’s legacies had pre-written most of the story already. The players that actually carried out their fate just filled in blanks and closed the book.
The end of North Carolina’s redemption tour awarded its players championship rings and a proverbial bandage for past wounds — but it also handed then-juniors Theo Pinson and Joel Berry II a situation that they weren’t familiar with: a blank page.
That blank page didn't provide direction for Pinson or Berry. No compass steered them straight.
So, they did what was best for their potential professional careers and explored their options by declaring for the NBA Draft without signing an agent.
“I mean, we never really talked about the NBA stuff as far as if he was going to leave or not,” Pinson said. “I understand that he’s got to take care of his own, but I didn’t really ask him about it.”
The day after his initial decision, though, Berry wasn’t convinced he was ready to leave. Williams remembers his point guard stepping into his office with the “ugliest look” he’d ever seen on Berry’s face.
“He walked into the office," Williams recalled, "and said, ‘I’ve been thinking about this since you and I talked, and I don’t want to do it ... I love it here. I’ve reached some of my dreams and goals here. I think I can get better.’”
Eight days after Berry withdrew from the draft, Pinson did too.
And now, the seniors on the reigning national championship team are the old heads on a roster that boasts six first-years. They’re the top two leaders in assists returning from last season and two of only three players that have started more than one game for North Carolina in their collegiate careers.
But the expectations that they hold themselves to in the context of their team have not wavered.
“I might have to take over a bigger role of scoring this year and doing the other things that we’ve lost,” Berry said. “But at the same time, I can’t let that get in the way of just being a basketball player.”
That being said, what Berry and Pinson might bring to this young, preseason-ranked No. 9 Tar Heel team cannot only be quantified by individual statistics. It’s already clear that the roommates — who are connected by their similar tastes in music and love of Five Guys — are fundamental to this North Carolina team’s identity.
After missing the first 16 regular season games last season, Pinson started 13 of the 21 games he played in and helped UNC win 13 of its final 16 regular season ACC games. When North Carolina faced off with Kentucky in the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament, Pinson — who wasn’t healthy when the Wildcats beat North Carolina by three points in the regular season — made the play that led to Luke Maye’s iconic shot, sending UNC to the Final Four.
Coming into the 2017-18 season, though, Berry is the one that’s been tied to the sideline after injuring his right hand. The Tar Heels felt their primary ball handler’s absence in UNC’s 91-80 exhibition win over Barton College — a game in which North Carolina shot just 20 percent from the 3-point line and had 14 turnovers.
"I'm putting a load on them," Williams said of reserve guards Seventh Woods and Jalek Felton on Thursday." Joel cannot play. It's like that old saying, he's not walking through that door with his uniform on tomorrow night."
The 2017-18 story is not shaping up to be similar to last year’s. The team’s newest authors — as well as its oldest ones, who aren’t necessarily used to starting over after achieving ultimate glory — are scribbling on their clean page.
Pinson sat in the lower bowl in the Smith Center on UNC’s media day, the 2017 national championship banner swaying over his head. As a senior, he realizes that he can’t recreate the story of how the 2016-17 squad climbed into the college basketball canopy.
The narrative might revolve around his and Berry’s decision to remain Tar Heels. Or, it might not.
And that, as he asserts, is fine by him.
“I remember last year, the day of the national championship game,” Pinson said. “Me and Joel wake up and we were like, ‘Dude, we’re playing in our second national championship game. Who would have ever thought we would be here again?’
“Why not have that same feeling again?”
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