As Shea Rush took in his final media day at the Smith Center, he couldn't help but shake his head and smile.
Had it really been three years since he and Brandon Robinson moved into their Ram Village apartments right across the street? Two and a half since they celebrated UNC’s 2017 national championship win over Gonzaga as first-years? They were the old guys now — and he was still wrapping his head around it.
“Unbelievable that we’re already seniors and getting treated like seniors,” Rush told The Daily Tar Heel. “Coach is like, ‘You’re the vets,’ and I’m like, ‘I guess I’m one of those vets.’ It’s pretty wild.”
The No. 9 Tar Heels aren’t short on upperclassmen. They have six juniors, including starter Garrison Brooks, and intriguing grad transfers in Justin Pierce and Christian Keeling. Robbie O’Han, a former three-year JV player, is also a senior.
But, by virtue of Tony Bradley declaring for the NBA Draft and Seventh Woods transferring this spring, Robinson and Rush stand alone on this 18-man roster. As North Carolina’s only two four-year players, they’re the final connection between this team and the 2017 championship roster of three seasons ago — the last of the Mohicans, if you will. And that hasn’t been lost on them.
The seniors said they’ve been trying to impress upon their younger teammates what it takes to get to that contender level. To win it all. To be featured on the front page of a DTH national championship paper — which, ironically, both Robinson and Rush did, in a joyful embrace with Kennedy Meeks and Luke Maye.
So as North Carolina opens its season Wednesday night against Notre Dame, the seniors have been emphasizing the little things.
Robinson, who since media day has sprained his ankle in an exhibition and is out indefinitely, immediately pointed out how UNC's 2016-17 team practiced. The core group that season — Joel Berry II, Justin Jackson, Theo Pinson, Meeks, Isaiah Hicks — had a singular focus: getting back to the national stage and seizing what was almost theirs a year before. It trickled down to the rest of the roster.