CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- On a basketball team studded with NBA lottery picks and human highlight reels, it's easy for even the biggest guy to get lost in the shuffle. Fortunately for the talent-laden North Carolina Tar Heels, that has never bothered Sean May.
The 6-foot-9 center is well-schooled in humility, having grown up in the shadow of greatness as the younger son of Scott May, the 1976 national player of the year, who led the Indiana Hoosiers to college basketball's last perfect season and an NCAA championship.
North Carolina's Sean May, left, celebrate UNC's 88-82 win over Wisconsin in the Syracuse Region final.
(David Duprey - AP)
This weekend in St. Louis, May has a chance to add to the family's scrapbook as North Carolina (31-4) makes its record 16th appearance in a Final Four, tipping off against Michigan State (26-6) in a national semifinal Saturday. The Spartans are led by a hulking center of their own, 6-11 Paul Davis. With a shot at the national title on the line, Saturday's game may well turn on whether May or Davis holds sway under the basket.
"We've got to attack him because they're going to try to attack me," May said this week. "It's the 'Battle of the Bigs,' I guess."
May is the rare college basketball player who knows the game's history and can see its future. Even more unusual, he is clear-eyed enough to grasp just what is required to advance to the next level -- both for himself and for his occasionally underachieving team.
Credit his father, a devoted basketball tutor, truth-teller and supporter, as well as Coach Roy Williams, who has guided May's development since arriving in North Carolina two seasons ago on the heels of May's frustrating, injury-plagued freshman year. After sitting out 24 games because of a broken foot, May needed some time to regain his confidence. But given the depth of talent around him, he didn't have forever to reclaim his spot in the rotation.
"I used to tell him my first year of college was a struggle, too. In one game, I think I traveled seven times!" Scott May recalled in a telephone interview. "But I told him, 'Either you're going to get better, or you're going to sit on the bench.' "
Williams was equally blunt after the Tar Heels' 2003-04 season ended with a second-round loss to Texas in the NCAA tournament. His message to May: Pare down and tone up. May knew it intuitively, having gasped his way through the first-round NCAA tournament loss.
"You can look at [videotape], and from the tip, I didn't want to play," May recalls. "I didn't have much in the tank, and after about the first five minutes, I was done!"
So he revamped his diet and hit the weights. The result was startling, transforming the baby-faced sophomore from a chubby Michelin Man into a sculpted Energizer Bunny.
"He's a little lighter [15 pounds], his percentage of body fat is lower, and that's helped his stamina, his bounce," Williams says. "He's able to jump higher and jump quicker. He's made plays this year that I don't think he ever would have made last year."
Meanwhile, Williams challenged North Carolina's players to transform themselves from a bunch of self-interested, "Hey, look at me" showboats into a team that cared more about its collective success. Few were more receptive to the challenge than May, who had grown up hearing his father talk about the love his Indiana teammates had for one another and the cohesion they played with on the floor.
May reveled in the lesson when Williams started practice one day by asking who was the best player on the 2004 NBA champion Detroit Pistons. Everybody had a different answer: Rip Hamilton! Rasheed Wallace! Chauncey Billups! So Williams popped in a 10-minute clip of the Pistons that proved every answer wrong.
"He just said, 'You can't tell who the best player is because they don't care! Everyone just plays together,' " May recalls. "And that's the epitome of a team: They are a team! They don't have one superstar, and no one shines. It's all about, 'Let's get a win!' "
Though May has only recently learned to deploy his 260-pound frame to its full advantage, he has long had a coach's sensibility about the game.
"All the very good ones have a feel for it -- both mentally and physically," said Tom McKinney, May's coach at Bloomington (Ind.) North High School. "You don't get as many rebounds as he gets just by working hard. When the ball goes up, he seems to know where the ball is going to come off. That's something the great rebounders seem to know, and he has a sense of that."
Longtime North Carolina basketball analyst Mick Mixon saw it the moment May put on a Carolina uniform.
"Sean has always been kind of a basketball savant," Mixon said. "He feels the game, and he speaks it. He watches other games closely. He could do my job!"
So it was no surprise that May started preparing for Saturday's Michigan State game on Sunday night's flight home from Syracuse, where he was named the region's most valuable player. The key to beating Michigan State, May counseled freshman phenom Marvin Williams during the flight, was rebounding with the same fury as the Spartans.
"I told Marvin [Williams] that [Michigan State] attacks the glass better than anyone in the country," May recalled.
On Friday night May plans to show his teammates a video of Indiana's 1976 NCAA championship game as extra motivation.
On Saturday, Scott May will be in the stands as Sean, wearing No. 42 as his father wore three decades earlier, leads the Tar Heels. May's older brother, Scott Jr., a member of Indiana's 2002 Final Four team, will also be there.
"I'm kind of creating my own name here and, hopefully, doing some good things for the University of North Carolina," May said. "But I'll always be Scott May's son. And I don't mind being compared to him."