ST. LOUIS, April 3 -- During a recent visit to a Men's Wearhouse in Durham, N.C., North Carolina's Melvin Scott encountered a familiar student from Duke. When face to face, Scott merely lifted his shirt, revealing a belt buckle that read "Final Four."
"Okay," J.J. Redick responded, "you're going to be like that, huh?
North Carolina's Melvin Scott, pictured, and fellow seniors Jawad Williams and Jackie Manuel have gone from 8-20 their first season to the national championship game this year.
(Mike Segar - Reuters)
Scott and two other Tar Heels seniors, Jackie Manuel and Jawad Williams, have reason to boast as they prepare for the school's first national championship game since 1993. Three seasons ago as freshmen, the trio endured the worst season in school history, when the Tar Heels went 8-20 and missed the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1974.
While North Carolina's brightest stars are three juniors and a freshman reserve, members of the team point to the seniors as the leaders because of where they were and where they are now. When they have recently walked around campus in Chapel Hill, they have been bombarded by autograph seekers en route to class.
"We feel like rock stars," Scott said.
Three years ago, though, Williams said they walked around campus joking that they should stick together in case a disgruntled Tar Heels fan wanted to take out one of them. He added, "If we were going down, we were going down together."
There were also signs of frustration and defiance amid struggles, the likes of which none of the players had envisioned.
Scott missed the team bus on one occasion and admittedly did not care much that he did. In fact, Scott occasionally wore his gray and black warmup suit that he had from his native Baltimore to the team's shoot-around instead of the customary North Carolina outfit. He said he dreaded getting up in the morning.
"It was miserable," Manuel said. "We lost a lot of fans that year."
The three arrived at Carolina as part of a highly regarded recruiting class that expected to continue the success of the program, which had reached five Final Fours between 1993 and 2000 with stars such as Rasheed Wallace, Jerry Stackhouse, Vince Carter and Antawn Jamison.
But by the end of the season, which began ominously enough with back-to-back home losses to Hampton and Davidson, all three considered transferring; three others -- Neil Fingleton, Adam Boone and Brian Morrison -- did. Williams said he was one "phone call away."
They all had long talks with their families. In the end, none wanted to be labeled a quitter, and all wanted to stick together, even if it meant dealing with an uncertain future and undoubtedly more scrutiny and criticism. For refuge, they visited the mall, buying clothes and shoes together.
"We figured," Williams said about the decision to stay, "that if we could lose together, we could win together."
At the end of the 2002-03 season, Matt Doherty was forced to resign as coach after a turbulent three seasons that included numerous personality conflicts with players. Enter Roy Williams, the former North Carolina assistant under Dean Smith.
Scott's immediate reaction, "You've got your work cut out for you, buddy."
Manuel said when Williams first arrived from Kansas he was most concerned with players' feelings, not wanting to "rub" them the wrong way.
"They had been through a lot of turmoil," Roy Williams said. "I wanted to make sure we were positive, but I always wanted to make sure I was concerned about what they had already gone through."
Williams believes no group of seniors in the country has gone through as much "junk" as the North Carolina trio.
Following North Carolina's comeback victory over Duke in the regular season finale, Williams cleared thousands of fans from Smith Center's floor to give the seniors the glowing sendoff he felt they deserved.
Sunday morning, Scott awoke in his hotel and grabbed his camcorder to begin videotaping teammates. After such an improbable turnaround in three years, he wanted to make sure he had it documented forever.