This article was written at the UNC Sports Journalism Camp. All quotes are from a press conference with Theo Pinson.
College basketball is a roller coaster. Case in point: the whirlwind career of North Carolina shooting guard and rising senior Theo Pinson.
During the 2015-16 season, Pinson, then a sophomore, and his Tar Heel teammates were on the verge of a national championship in their game against the Villanova Wildcats. A miracle three-pointer by point guard Marcus Paige over Villanova defenders tied the title game with just seconds remaining, giving North Carolina a rush of hope and optimism. Seconds later, the bubble burst, as Villanova guard Kris Jenkins nailed the game-winning three-pointer as time expired to eliminate Pinson and North Carolina. Devastation rocked Chapel Hill.
12 months later, the Tar Heels found themselves on the same national championship stage facing the Gonzaga Bulldogs, owners of a pristine 37-1 record. Though North Carolina wasn’t firing on all cylinders offensively. Pinson and his Tar Heel teammates played with unrivaled intensity and locked the Bulldogs down on the defensive end. As the final seconds of regulation ticked down with the Heels winning 71-65, the Tar Heels’ dream was realized- they were NCAA champions.
“The first thing I thought of when we won was ‘I can’t believe it,’” Pinson said. “I just thank the Lord we did, because last year would have haunted me for the rest of my life.”
Pinson’s accomplished college career could’ve ended with a ride off into the sunset and departure to the professional game, a route which several of his teammates chose. While Pinson entertained the idea of jumping to the NBA and submitted his name for the NBA Draft, he ultimately withdrew from consideration when he wasn’t invited to the NBA combine and instead elected to return to Chapel Hill for his senior season. Pinson’s roller coaster would continue.
Months later, the championship still hasn’t sunk in for Pinson. But now, the focus has shifted ahead to the upcoming season and bringing back more hardware to North Carolina and Pinson, now a senior, is faced with a tougher road than he’s ever faced before.
With Justin Jackson, Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks now on NBA rosters, Pinson and point guard Joel Berry II are left as the only remaining starters from the championship squad. The Tar Heels will welcome eight new faces onto the team this upcoming season, making a repeat of April’s championship victory anything but a formality.
For the team to contend for another national championship, a smooth transition into the college game for the newcomers will be vital to North Carolina’s title hopes. Now seniors, Pinson and Berry will step into those crucial leadership roles after watching their former teammates run the show.
“We’re leaders now,” Pinson said. “We have to bring the young guys along. Play hard, play disciplined.”
The best trait that the backcourt duo brings to the table is experience. With two championship appearances in the last two seasons, Pinson and Berry know that it takes more than just talent and determination to become a champion.
“It literally takes everything out of you,” Pinson said of the championship experience. “I’ve never been so drained in my life. It’s a tough experience and a tough road. You have to dig deep in those last five minutes.”
Just a couple months after the greatest victory of his career, Pinson is back on the grind. The Tar Heels aren’t resting on their laurels, instead training with the ferocity and dedication that fueled their mission last year. And when Tar Heels return to the court next November, the new season is all that will be on the team’s mind.
“I don’t think it’s going to be tough for me and [Berry] to not look back at last year,” Pinson said. “Once that ball goes up, it’s just a dogfight.”
Entering his final season as a Tar Heel, Pinson has no doubts about where he wants the ride to end.
“What other way can you go out better than a national championship?”