Ron Morris

Morris: Presbyterian's road trip of a lifetime

CHAPEL HILL | ELLIOTT HOLMES WAS among the legion of Michael Jordan fans in the Southeast during the great one's days at North Carolina. Holmes passed his allegiance to Jordan and the North Carolina Tar Heels along to his son, Chase. Young Chase's first NBA game came on a pilgrimage with his father from Spartanburg to Chicago to see Jordan play.

So when Chase Holmes walked into the Dean E. Smith Center a week ago for a shootaround with the Presbyterian basketball team, he first looked to the rafters. He sought out Jordan's retired No. 23 jersey among the rows and rows displayed in one end zone.

"Every boy's dream was to play for North Carolina," Holmes said of growing up, even in South Carolina. "When I was little, Jordan was my hero. I wanted to be like Mike. This is the next-best thing, getting to play against North Carolina."

Presbyterian coach Gregg Nibert talked earlier in the day about how his team would not be in awe of the surroundings, even with six freshmen, two sophomores and a junior on the active roster. Nibert believed his team was confident enough to not be overwhelmed and intimidated by playing in the Taj Mahal of college basketball.

Nibert was badly misguided in his thinking.

"It's like playing in a museum," said Holmes, a sophomore guard who spoke with wide eyes and mouth agape.

Throughout the Saturday morning shootaround, as Nibert worked with players on one end of the court, players on the other end gazed at the building's dome.

In addition to being overwhelmed by the preponderance of baby blue that cascades across every seat and every facade, even the most jaded visitor cannot help but be awestruck by the banners. There are the five national championship banners in one end zone. The sides and the corners of the rafters are filled with banners for UNC's 18 Final Four appearances, 49 Sweet 16s and 24 Elite Eights.

There also is one banner each for the 41 times UNC has played in the NCAA tournament. By contrast, Presbyterian longs to hang one NCAA tournament banner in its Templeton Center. That is what this Presbyterian trip to the land of Oz really was all about.

Presbyterian is in its third season of transition to Division I basketball. It will begin to compete for Big South Conference championships and berths in the NCAA tournament during the 2011-12 season. That's why three of its junior starters - Al'Lonzo Coleman, Josh Johnson and Pierre Miller - are redshirting this season.

Minutes before tipoff, Nibert exchanged handshakes with the UNC coaching staff and stopped to hear a few words of encouragement from Tar Heels coach Roy Williams. As they spoke, a crowd of 18,596 - 10,041 more than Presbyterian drew in 11 home games last season - was filing into the Smith Center.

"Make sure you've got a good AD and president, because it's exciting what you're doing," Williams said, according to Nibert.

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There was a bit of awkwardness Dec. 11 as the Presbyterian team boarded the bus at the back entrance of the Templeton Center in Clinton. Greeting the players and wishing them well was interim athletics director Mike Smith, who has applied for the full-time position. At that moment, outgoing AD Bee Carlton and his wife, Laura, toted Carlton's belongings out the gymnasium's front door following his final day on the job.

The changing of the guard at the top signals that all has not been smooth sailing during Presbyterian's bold jump to the big leagues of college athletics. The move was made with the idea of increasing revenue streams to the athletics department while gaining exposure for the university.

Presbyterian probably never has gotten this much national exposure. With every game it plays, the school's name streams across the ticker on ESPN and ESPN2. This week, Nibert appeared for a morning interview on an ESPN2 show.

Nibert's team also has done its part to bring more money to the athletics program, hauling in $655,000 in guarantees for the 2007-08 season, when Presbyterian played 25 road games, including heavyweights Clemson, Ohio State, Wake Forest, Georgia, N.C. State, Georgia Tech and Auburn.

A season ago, Presbyterian played its first Big South schedule in addition to guarantee games at Duke, Houston, Georgia, Clemson and Marquette that netted the program $415,000.

This season's haul will total $530,000. The North Carolina game earned Presbyterian a $75,000 paycheck. It was the first stop on a five-game swing to Ohio State (this past Wednesday), Dayton (Saturday), Marquette (Dec. 27) and Florida (Dec. 30).

After expenses, Presbyterian cleared nearly $70,000 for the UNC trip. But money was not on the minds of Nibert, his coaching staff or team members as they boarded a Champion bus in Clinton on Friday following a two-hour workout. As the itinerary pointed out, it was a four-hour bus ride to Chapel Hill, meals were planned along with a Saturday shootaround and then the 7:30 tipoff to "Beat North Carolina."

Of course, the chances of a school whose enrollment of 1,200 is the second-smallest among Division I schools - Centenary is smaller - defeating defending national champion and 11th-ranked North Carolina were slimmer than slim. There was talk in the media room beforehand that a Presbyterian win would equal or match that of tiny Chaminade defeating No. 1-ranked Virginia in 1982.

The realists were scouring the Presbyterian record book to see if UNC could administer the Blue Hose their worst beating ever. An 84-9 Presbyterian loss to South Carolina in 1934 would be difficult to top - but not beyond the realm of possibility.

The team ordered dinner at the hotel restaurant upon arriving Friday evening. Then they were off to their rooms to play video games before lights out at 11 p.m. Presbyterian generally does not cut corners on its sleeping arrangements, lodging this night at the Hilton. Embassy Suites are a fallback on the road.

Wake-up was 9 a.m. on Saturday with a buffet breakfast at the hotel before the team departed for the 11 o'clock shootaround at an arena familiar to at least one Presbyterian player.

Freshman point guard Zach Faircloth was 10 months removed from playing a high school state championship game in the Smith Center. His Terry Sanford High team out of Fayetteville, N.C., lost the Class 4A title game to Mount Tabor in March.

"It's big, real big," said Faircloth, who paid particular attention to the banners hanging in honor of former Tar Heels Vince Carter, Antawn Jamison and Ed Cota, his idols growing up. "Last year was like one big dream for me. Now this is a second one, playing against them."

Shootarounds are designed to familiarize a team with the surroundings. That can be difficult when your team is playing in an arena that employs almost as many workers as the number of fans (389) who attended your last home game.

It also is difficult when the opposing team lists seven McDonald's All-Americans on its roster. Nibert and his staff do not talk to McDonald's All-Americans, let alone recruit them.

"He's my McDonald's All-American," Nibert said, pointing to Jay Reynolds, a 6-foot-10, 250-pound freshman from Maryville, Tenn., whose eating acumen is legend within the team. Reynolds said a typical visit to McDonald's would have him consuming four double cheeseburgers and a milkshake.

"He's like a disposal," Nibert said.

Nibert emphasized during the shootaround that Presbyterian would need all of Reynolds' muscle around the basket, because UNC would counter with a front line that Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said belonged in Oregon because of all its trees.

The greater emphasis for Presbyterian in the week of practices through final exams was on defense - more specifically against UNC, defensive transition. The Blue Hose planned to use a 2-3 zone to control the game's tempo.

"Maximum defensive effort," the team said in unison, repeating the emphasis of the day as printed on Nibert's practice plan sheet. "First 5 seconds. Next 20. Last 10. Fist."

Translation: Allow no UNC shots in the first five seconds of a possession, keep the Tar Heels in front of the defense for the next 20 seconds and contest all shots in the last 10 seconds. Also, play so hard on defense that a tired signal - a fist - would be needed to come out of the game.

No Presbyterian players were aware the fist as a tired signal was the invention of the man for whom the building they were playing in was named. Dean Smith also invented the run-and-jump defense Presbyterian was preparing to play against and the point-zone matchup defense that Nibert considered using against UNC.

At the conclusion of the shootaround, Nibert gathered his team at midcourt. Again, the team repeated the emphasis for the game. "Defensive transition" was hammered home to his team. Away from his team, Nibert admitted playing against the Tar Heels was like participating in a "freaking track meet."

"Know the emphasis. Not only know it, but do it," Nibert told his team. "Challenge yourself right now. No transition baskets. Make them into a half-court team. For us to have a chance, the game's got to be in the 60s.

"I really believe this. The game's going to be 68-66 and we have the ball with a chance to win it. I really believe that."

The team returned to its hotel for a scouting report on UNC, which amounted to a 30-minute videotape session. The team watched how Syracuse defeated UNC by employing a 2-3 zone defense that limited the Tar Heels to 71 points.

The players relaxed in their rooms for two hours before gathering in a hotel meeting room for the pregame meal of grilled chicken, pasta and a vegetable medley. Nibert was the lone member of the Presbyterian party to miss the meal, giving way to nerves that prevent him from eating until after the game.

Then the players boarded the bus for the 30-minute ride to Chapel Hill for the game. Perhaps sensing they were about to play the role of sacrificial lambs, juniors Coleman and Walt Allen sat across the aisle from each other and read from a Bible. They paid particular attention to a passage from Luke 23:42: "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."

As plush and spacious as the 24-year-old Smith Center appears within the arena, it is anything but in the visitor's locker room. Cramped does not begin to describe the area in which Presybterian dressed. Other than the white walls, the room was splashed with what North Carolina natives like to call Carolina blue, including the bathroom stalls and the ink from the grease markers Nibert used to map out his team's strategies.

A few minutes before tipoff, Nibert shouted the starting lineup one by one as the entire team stood and clapped in unison. As he introduced a starter, Nibert gave each player a defensive assignment by calling out the jersey number of a UNC player.

By then, Nibert had his team in a frenzy. It was ready to bolt out the door, down the long hallway and into the arena. But the door would not open. Perhaps as some cruel joke UNC likes to play on its opponents, the trainer had to find the nearby red button that was pushed to open the door.

Finally, the team gathered at the entranceway to the court and looked around to take in the surroundings.

"We've come a long way since the days of playing at Coker in that little bandbox of about 100," said Nelson Jones, Presbyterian's director of sports medicine, who is in his 23rd year at the school.

The opening tip went to UNC. Will Graves missed a 3-pointer, Justin Watts grabbed the rebound and Ed Davis scored on 5-foot jump hook. Presbyterian turned the ball over on its first possession and had its first two shot attempts blocked. In a blink, it was 8-0 UNC, and Nibert called a timeout.

"We've got to bust it back on defense," Nibert told his team. "There isn't enough effort getting back. The defensive effort is not good enough."

It only got worse as UNC applied the same vise to Presbyterian that it applies to many of its opponents. The Tar Heels were taller, quicker and more athletic than Presbyterian at every position. In order to get back on defense, Nibert finally ordered his players to stop attempting to get offensive rebounds.

On offense, Holmes eventually proved effective at driving to the basket and scoring - he finished with 29 points - but it was not the strategy Nibert wanted. He wanted Holmes to pitch the ball outside after penetrating the UNC defense.

Presbyterian's goals of holding UNC to fewer than 10 offensive rebounds and committing fewer than 10 turnovers were nearly gone by halftime. UNC's lead was 32-5 midway through the half. With a 56-21 halftime lead, UNC eliminated any chance of the game being played in the 60s.

"There aren't any tricky plays here where we can come up with 30 points," Nibert told his team at halftime. "You understand that? It's not about any set plays. It's about getting ... what? It's about getting stops and doing everything you can to get back in transition."

Presbyterian showed improvement in the second half, in part because it worked harder at getting back on defense and in part because UNC's Williams substituted liberally and his team played less aggressively on defense. The final 103-64 score hardly represented the one-sidedness of the game.

Williams did Presbyterian one other favor in the second half. He instructed security to have a fan wearing a Presbyterian shirt to be removed from behind his team's bench. Apparently the fan, who was not with the Presbyterian party that traveled from Clinton, was shouting at a UNC player to miss free throws.

The subsequent brouhaha gained national attention on ESPN and in USA Today, thus providing Presbyterian with name recognition it could not have purchased. Nibert said the incident could continue to pay dividends for his school and team if Duke students wear Presbyterian T-shirts - as rumored - when UNC visits Durham in March.

Before putting his team on the bus out of Chapel Hill for the late-night/early morning ride to Clinton, Nibert had one last message for his players.

"I've got the team I want to be in the locker room with, and you're at the school you want to be at, and the school is proud of you," Nibert said. "You got it? This is the best school in the country."

One painstaking step at a time, Nibert's message is leaking outside his locker room and throughout the country.

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