PHILADELPHIA – Theo Pinson made his way up the steps to the dais roughly 10 minutes into the NCAA’s Elite Eight press conference on Friday, interrupting Roy Williams and North Carolina’s starting five and bringing levity to a rather comatose media room.
Pinson, smiling while peering over his teammates’ shoulders, asked: “Where's my chair at? Where my name at?”
The laughter was instant and contagious, starting with Brice Johnson and working its way down the table to Justin Jackson before expanding out into the mass of reporters.
“You guys don't have to put up with him,” Roy Williams said. “I have to put up with him every dadgum day… It’s like I told you, I never have to congratulate him. He congratulates himself. I've been coaching 28 years. I've never had one frickin' player walk up in the middle of a damn press conference.”
The Tar Heels are loose and lively, and that’s a problem for the other seven teams remaining in the NCAA Tournament.
“Our team this year has been more laidback than in the past couple of years,” senior guard Marcus Paige said. “We have a lot of fun. Our shootarounds are really loose. There’s not a lot of tension. Everybody’s just having fun, and then as we get closer to game time, we get really serious, lock in and then we play good basketball.”
There’s something to be said for a team that embraces the roster’s individual personalities and lets that diversity elevate chemistry. The 2009 national championship squad possessed that characteristic, folding Ty Lawson’s love for Sponge Bob Squarepants, Bobby Frasor’s sarcasm and Tyler Hansbrough’s oddball ways into an added layer of depth that helped prevent fractures.
One year later, that unity was lacking. Following a 16-point loss to Syracuse in the preseason NIT at Madison Square Garden, an angry Marcus Ginyard spoke to reporters about his team’s play while freshmen John Henson and Dexter Strickland were cutting up in the corner of the locker room. The disconnect was visible.
This team is a barrel full of laughs.
“That’s just who we are,” Johnson said. “When we step between those lines, we’re totally different people, but off the court, we like to have a lot of fun. We’re just kids. We like to have fun.”
Pinson is undoubtedly the primary instigator, although it may be Kennedy Meeks that has the most infectious laugh of the bunch. Johnson is the team's prankster, often posting his antics on Instagram. Most notably, he placed a rubber snake under Paige’s chair in the locker room last year, prompting his roommate to jump out of his seat while his teammates laughed at his expense.
“That’s how we’ve always been,” Jackson said. “Even when we had a loss, we were down for a day or so and then we were right back to being ourselves. We’re a team that loves to have fun. We love to joke around with each other. We just love each other, honestly.”
Winning makes it easier, and that’s something the Tar Heels have done a lot of recently. UNC has won 10 of its last 11 games, picking up the ACC regular season championship and the ACC Tournament title along the way. The lone loss came at Virginia, which is favored on Sunday to reach its first Final Four since 1984.
The average margin of victory in UNC’s last 10 wins is 14.8 points.
“Coach has kept reminding us to enjoy this journey,” Paige said, “and I think it’s because we have a bunch of old guys. He’s just saying, ‘Enjoy this because you’re going to look back on it with fond memories years from now.’
“And like I’ve been saying for the past couple of weeks, the best way to enjoy it is to play your best basketball and to really be proud of what you did on the court, and that makes it more fun off the court as well.”