Seventeen players stepped onto the Roy Williams Court in the Dean E. Smith Center on Friday afternoon, but they weren't the players the nation has come to recognize as the preseason No. 1 team.
The team that came out of the locker room was the UNC junior varsity men's basketball squad, returning once again after a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic.
In its return, UNC didn’t disappoint. The Tar Heels employed every man on the roster to crush Voyager Academy, their prep-school opponent, in a decisive 76-32 victory.
There were questions surrounding the teams' return — North Carolina is one of the last Division I programs in the nation with a JV team — but former head coach Dean Smith's wishes to continue to field the team prevailed. The junior varsity team is set to play a full season in 2022-2023.
As the team warmed up, it was clear the players were feeling the effects of being on the storied Dean E. Smith Center court. Necks were craned towards the jerseys hung from the rafters, commemorating legends of the UNC basketball program that had stood in in the same spot.
“I've been a UNC fan my whole life so I've always watched games from the stands,” sophomore forward Will Tyndall said. “Just to be able to play on the court and score on those baskets with those banners up there is just incredible.”
Sophomore guard George Hill said playing in the Dean E. Smith Center was a "surreal moment" and "a dream come true." He shot 100 percent from outside the arc, putting in a strong performance to help the team secure the win.
“It's just an honor to be a part of this great program,” Hill said.
UNC's team was formed earlier this month and has had limited time to develop its unity and playing style. The group of recruits survived each round of cuts during tryouts. Most had not played competitive basketball since high school.
“We've only had 12 practices and there's still some rust there,” head coach Jackie Manuel said. “I told the guys to come in and just focus on trying to get better each and every moment out there and just build on that.”
However, this lack of practice seemed to be combated by the sheer excitement and gratitude players felt for the opportunity to wear a UNC basketball jersey. The team worked well as a unit and was cohesive in its full-court press and offensive possessions. Throughout the game, shouts of encouragement and support could be heard from the bench to the players on the court.
This year's team is led by Manuel, a former Tar Heel who was a tri-captain of the 2005 NCAA championship team. Voyager Academy’s head coach was his former North Carolina teammate, Melvin Scott.
“It was an amazing moment," Manuel said. "Being my first head coaching game, being two years (since the team played), and then having the chance to play against my teammate. To have both of us out there on the sidelines was an amazing moment with our families in the stands.”
With their season opener officially behind them, the team is looking to build off the win and improve as the season continues.
“We definitely saw that we needed to work on our communication, our decision making, our defensive energy — just things that you kinda forget about when you don't play basketball games for a couple of years like most of us have,” Tyndall said. “Really just (honing) our craft as a team.”
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