CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – No. 5 North Carolina’s starting five against No. 17 Duke on Saturday will, as tradition dictates on Senior Night, consist of five players that are playing their final game at the Dean E. Smith Center.
While the starting lineup will look the part – UNC’s home white uniforms serve as a lifelong bonding agent – its diversity is what makes this Senior Night unique.
Walk-on Kanler Coker started his Tar Heel career as a quarterback on Larry Fedora’s football team before an elbow injury set in motion his transition to the hardwood.
Sixth-year relic Stilman White’s Mormon mission took a detour out of high school, as Roy Williams needed a point guard stop-gap for a potential title run in 2011-12. Little did anyone know that a Kendall Marshall wrist injury would force White into the starting lineup of UNC’s Elite Eight matchup with Kansas as a true freshman, a game in which he dished out seven assists without a turnover.
Kennedy Meeks arrived on campus weighing 317 pounds and his body transformation has been an ongoing process that has largely defined his playing career. With soft hands and a cannon ideal for outlet passes, the Charlotte, N.C. product has evolved into one of the nation’s top offensive rebounders and is 44 rebounds away from adding 1,000 career rebounds to his 1,372 career points.
Nate Britt was considered a top-five point guard prospect as a high school junior before a meniscus injury derailed his senior season. A quiet but firm leader in his final college season, Britt chose No. 0 as a statement to the many who doubted his abilities. The Upper Marlboro, Md. has endured challenges throughout his career, from switching shooting hands to deleting his social media apps due to negativity.
As a sophomore, Britt played through the death of his grandfather, Ned, who lived in LaGrange, N.C. and was instrumental in his decision to attend UNC over Arizona and Maryland. Two games later, he needed 15 stitches due to a lacerated upper lip in a win at Wake Forest.
Isaiah Hicks, in many respects, is the lone senior that fits the imagined Tar Heel prototype. The state of North Carolina’s 2013 A.P. Player of the Year, the Oxford, N.C. native was a McDonald’s All-American who scored 34 points and grabbed 30 rebounds in his 3A state championship game as a high school senior.
Hicks, soft-spoken for a man of his size and known his stealth napping ability, developed throughout his college career, logging minutes off the bench early before winning ACC Sixth Man of the Year honors as a junior. He’s now a starter just one ACC win away, along with Britt, from tying Tyler Hansbrough and Danny Green (59) for most league wins played in a career.
Different backgrounds. Different journeys. One final start, together, in the building where their games were developed and their goals were molded into one purpose, one that technically starts next week in Brooklyn but with a foundation laid years ago.
“It’s definitely a little emotional,” Meeks said this week. “You try not to think about it as much just because you want to focus on the game. That’s hard to do, just because we put a lot of hard work in here and for it to finally be coming to an end is very sad.”
True to form, Meeks will deliver a speech to the crowd following Saturday’s game, although he has no speech written. He prefers to roll off the cuff. Britt will join him in giving a live speech, while Hicks has opted for a taped video segment.
Each player has endured Roy Williams and his methods of instruction: sometimes critical, oftentimes demanding, always with a father’s touch.
“When you’ve played for me for four years, Jiminy Christmas, you’ve put up with a lot of BS,” Williams said. “I’ve felt for the walk-ons, but you also feel for the guys that have been with you for four years.
“I’m fairly corny and all that stuff, but I can be a guy that’s not fun to be around if you don’t do what I want you to do. I push guys harder than most of them have ever been comfortable. So if a guy hangs in there with me for four years, it’s pretty special.”
Some members of UNC’s starting five against Duke will play next year at the professional level, whether it be in the NBA or abroad. For others, like White, the basketball days of their lives are numbered.
“It’s really weird, because sometimes when I think about it, I’m like, ‘man, it’s been a long road. I’ve been in Utah for two years during this time, and I’ve been here four years,’” White said. “But then at times I feel like it’s gone by in a blink of an eye and the next thing I know I’m going to have to be looking for a job. I made my LinkedIn profile last week, which was a real awakening moment for me. I know that my basketball career is coming to an end. I can’t believe it because it’s something I’ve spent my whole life doing. That’s how I identified myself growing up.”
White’s journey led him to Chapel Hill, and like his fellow seniors, he will forever be identified as a Tar Heel.