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.
“Every practice was a good practice,” Robinson told the DTH. “There was no day we came in with a lot of energy and the next day with low energy. It was constantly good practices, over and over again.”
Rush has two major takeaways from his first season. One is maximizing every day. The other, he said, is an extension of head coach Roy Williams’ mantra to always give a little more: in practice, in UNC’s infamous preseason conditioning and running tests, in games regardless of result or situation.
“He exhausts us on the court,” Rush said. “You’re thinking, ‘I can’t keep running’ or ‘I can’t keep playing’ … what he’s trying to get you to understand is you can do a little more. So helping these guys understand you might be exhausted, you might be tired, but you’ve just got to keep pushing.”
Jackson Simmons was a first-year on UNC’s 2011-12 team. On that roster, Tyler Zeller and Justin Watts, who were on UNC’s 2009 championship team as first-years, played the role of Robinson and Rush as the final connection between the past and the present.
Simmons, now an assistant video coordinator for the Charlotte Hornets, told the DTH such veterans can play a huge role in building resiliency. Specific to Robinson and Rush: UNC’s 2017 NCAA championship team lost seven games. None of North Carolina’s previous five NCAA title teams lost more than four.
Robinson and Rush hit on that, too. Growing pains, they said, are part of a team’s journey. If the Tar Heels want to get to Atlanta for this year’s Final Four, they must take those in stride — while, of course, maximizing every day and practice.
Because, as Rush will tell you, time really does fly.
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