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The year(s) of not taking March Madness for granted

PHOTO (UNC Athletics): Garrison Brooks


North Carolina’s Garrison Brooks understood a year ago what Duke and Kentucky players learned this season. Signing a scholarship with a college basketball Blue Blood doesn’t include an automatic trip to March Madness.

That truth was reemphasized this year for two more of the bluest of Blue Bloods, 2015 NCAA champion Duke and 2012 NCAA champion Kentucky.

North Carolina, the 2017 NCAA champ, has returned to March Madness, while Duke’s 24-year NCAA streak came to an end with a 13-11 record and Kentucky’s 9-16 record has left the Wildcats at home.

A year ago, North Carolina was on the outside looking in with a 14-19 record, although the COVID-19 pandemic ultimately canceled both the ACC and NCAA tournaments. There was no tournament missed officially on coach Roy Williams’ record, but the reality of missing the NCAA tournament had set in with an ACC second-round loss to Syracuse before the ACC and NCAA cancelation decisions.

Brooks, a 6-foot-10 senior, said he never took it for granted, even after the luxury of making it the first two years as a freshman and sophomore.

“It’s awesome (to be in the NCAA),” he said on Wednesday during in a Zoom call. “It’s something our team has worked hard for. You could see it on selection Sunday, the excitement in everybody’s faces that we get to play again.”

The Tar Heels (18-10) are a No. 8 seed facing No. 9 seed Wisconsin (17-12) in the first round of the South Regional. The teams play at 7:10 p.m. Friday at Mackey Arena on the Purdue campus in West Lafayette as part of the Indianapolis bubble.

Prior to last season’s losing record, North Carolina had made the NCAA tournament the previous nine seasons and 15 of 16 since Roy Williams returned to his alma mater in 2004. Williams has won three NCAA titles at North Carolina in 2005, 2009 and 2017.

Brooks joined the defending national champions as a freshman in 2017-18, starting 16 of 37 games. North Carolina advanced to the NCAA second round before falling to Texas A&M. As a sophomore, North Carolina advanced to the 2018-19 Sweet Sixteen before losing to Auburn. Brooks started all 36 games.

Last year North Carolina played two ACC tournament games, defeating Virginia Tech and losing to Syracuse before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the post-season.

The only players with NCAA experience are Brooks, senior guard Andrew Platek, junior guard Leaky Black and redshirt junior Sterling Manley. However, Manley missed all of 2019-20 with a foot injury and has played in only two games this year in his comeback. He played in 37 games off the bench as a 2017-18 freshman, including both NCAA games.

Brooks averages 10.2 points and 6.8 rebounds a game and Black 5.7 points with 5.0 rebounds and 2.5 assists. Platek averages 13.4 minutes off the bench with 3.8 points.

North Carolina’s young lineup responded to ACC tournament play, defeating Notre Dame 101-59 and No. 22-ranked Virginia Tech 81-73 before losing to No. 15 Florida State 69-66 in the ACC semifinals. Sophomore Armando Bacot averaged a double-double, 16.3 points and 10.7 rebounds.

North Carolina’s three other starters who will be playing in their first NCAA game are sophomore Armando Bacot (6-10, 240), 12.2 points, 8.0 rebounds; freshman Caleb Love (6-4, 195), 10.5 points; and freshman Kerwin Walton (6-5, 205), 8.2 points. The next three players off the bench are freshman Day’Ron Sharpe (6-11, 265), 9.7 points and 7.8 rebounds; freshman R.J. Davis (6-0, 160), 9.7 points; and freshmen Walker Kessler (7-1, 245), 4.5 points, 3.3 rebounds.

Brooks has been talking to the younger players about what to expect in an NCAA game.

“I was talking to Armando about yesterday,” Brooks said. “Scout-wise, I said we start preparing now. He said, ‘Dang, that’s early to be scouting now.’ I said, ‘Well, we have to win our first game so it makes sense.’ It’s a difference experience for the young guys.”


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