ST. LOUIS – It was midway through Jackie Manuel’s sophomore season, and he had reached his wit’s end.
Manuel, a guard at North Carolina, had just committed five turnovers in a game against North Carolina A&T. The once-proud Tar Heels were on their way to a mediocre season, one that ended with a loss in the National Invitation Tournament.
To top it all off, Manuel opened the Daily Tar Heel, UNC’s student newspaper, and found a cartoon suggesting that even blind players shouldn’t pass him the ball.
“I’m like, ‘Your own newspaper, you know?’” Manuel said Friday. “Making fun of you and making jokes about you?
“That was, I think, the worst experience for me ever.” But Manuel’s freshman season might have been even worse. That year, the Tar Heels lost to Hampton, Davidson and Charleston as part of an 8-20 season, the worst in school history. Manuel even considered transferring from North Carolina during the nightmare.
“The schools that recruited me, they were doing good,” Manuel said. “So I was like, well, maybe I didn’t make the right decision. But I talked to my parents, and they told me just go and stick it out and see what happens.”
What happened was a remarkable turnaround. Manuel and the two other freshmen who saw action on the 8-20 team, Jawad Williams and Melvin Scott, are now seniors. They form a key component of a Tar Heels team that is 31-4 and at the Edward Jones Dome this weekend for the Final Four.
North Carolina beat Michigan State 87-71 on Saturday to advance to the Monday championship game against Illinois.
UNC coach Roy Williams didn’t come to Chapel Hill until two years after the 20-loss season, but he too said he felt its effects.
He said he thought some of the players became too focused on their own performance because the team was struggling.
Slowly at first, and then at an increasing rate, the team concept started to come to the Tar Heels. With it came better results.
Last year, in Williams’ first year as coach, the Tar Heels reached the NCAA Tournament. This year, they’ve made it to college basketball’s pinnacle.
It’s a process Manuel said he would have had trouble believing after his freshman year.
“I would have walked away thinking, ‘This guy’s crazy,’” he said. “But it’s just a great feeling that we put in the hard work and now we’re being rewarded.”
Junior Rashad McCants echoed Manuel’s sentiments.
“That first year was tough for them and we wanted to be there to help them out during that time,” McCants said. “We’re here now and we’re going to try to take advantage.”
The experience of a tough freshman season may help the Tar Heel seniors.
“There’s no pressure on us at all,” Jawad Williams said. “We haven’t been here before.”