North Carolina is no stranger to No. 1 seeds. In fact, its men’s team has earned a top seed more times than any other program in the history of the NCAA Tournament. But when the 68 teams in this year’s field were revealed Sunday and the Tar Heels nabbed the No. 1 seed in the Midwest region, the team erupted in relief and joy.
The Heels are Columbus bound!!#MarchMadness | #CarolinaSZN pic.twitter.com/Wk2QdAEgVC
— Carolina Basketball (@UNC_Basketball) March 17, 2019
With Duke and Virginia already virtual locks for No. 1 seeds, many questioned whether the Atlantic Coast Conference was deserving of three teams on the top line. The Tar Heels had just lost in the ACC Tournament semifinals. Questionable losses to Texas and Louisville at home stained their resume. Few household names adorn their roster. In the preseason, UNC was ranked No. 8, lower than this year’s other No. 1 seeds Gonzaga (3), Duke (4) and Virginia (5).
Yet, the Tar Heels overcame inconsistency early in the season to win 27 games (including two over Duke and one over Gonzaga) and a share of the ACC regular-season title. This year’s Tar Heels run counter to the one-and-done revolution in major college basketball in that the core of their team is comprised of three senior starters: small forward Cameron Johnson, power forward Luke Maye and shooting guard Kenny Williams.
A dead-eye shooter, Johnson leads the team in scoring with 16.9 points per game. Maye averages a double-double in points and rebounds, while Williams is the team’s lock-down defender.
Yet Johnson, Maye and Williams have more in common than a shared senior night or even their immense basketball talent. All three arrived in Chapel Hill unconventionally and with little fanfare. Johnson transferred from Pittsburgh before the 2018 season, Maye first joined the team as a preferred walk-on, and Williams originally committed to VCU. The three are roommates and great friends.
They are also all followers of Jesus.
After defeating Duke on March 9 in the last home game of his career, Johnson explained to the packed Smith Center crowd what he’s learned about Christ.
“I just want to thank God,” Johnson said, “because the sooner you trust in His plan for you, the sooner you find peace.”
Maye spoke to Sports Spectrum about his own faith at the beginning of this season. God first touched his heart in high school, but He has strengthened Maye since he arrived on campus in 2015. Teammates and coaches rave not only about the work ethic that made Maye the player he’s become, but about his leadership as well.
“He’s the real deal,” assistant coach Hubert Davis said of Maye. “He really is an example on and off the court, and you always want to be an example of Christ in the way that you walk and everything that you do, and that’s what (Maye) does. He witnesses through everything.”
Like Johnson, Williams voiced his faith during his own Senior Night speech.
“I’m so thankful that God placed me at this university,” Williams said. “Everybody knows I committed somewhere else first, and God made a way.”
To be sure, the younger Tar Heels look to the three seniors to lead during times of uncertainty on the court. But they also look to the seniors off of it. Johnson, Maye and Williams help to lead a Bible study every Tuesday night that many teammates attend. There, in the midst of learning about the Creator, teammates become true brothers.
On the court, the senior trio’s chemistry, experience and pure talent has North Carolina poised for a deep March run. Yet even with a No. 1 seed, the Tar Heels will have to lean once again on Johnson, Maye and Williams as potential blue-blood showdowns with Kansas and Kentucky loom on the horizon.
North Carolina will begin its pursuit of a second title in three years on Friday night in Columbus, Ohio, against the 16th-seeded Iona Gaels.
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