Dexter Strickland anxiously eyed the television screen on Selection Sunday, hoping North Carolina would be called.
All the former St. Patrick's (N.J.) star wanted was a fresh start, a chance to salvage a season that had spiraled out of control almost from the start. Even if it was the NIT.
"Everybody knows that our regular season was horrible, worst record ever in Tar Heel history. It's sad to say that," said Strickland, the Tar Heels' freshman point guard. "Everybody was hungry to start the NIT and prove to people and ourselves that we can play even better and at a better level."
Just a year ago, Roy Williams' club was the national champion. Now the Tar Heels - a 19-16 team riddled by injuries - are vying for an NIT title along with Rhode Island, Ole Miss and Dayton. But there is no shame. Just relief.
"I think it was harder to get over the disappointment of how poorly we played that put us into this position," said Williams, whose team will face Rhode Island in tonight's 9 o'clock semifinal at Madison Square Garden.
"We were sitting there as a team watching the NIT selection show and everybody was very edgy because we were in the fourth bracket shown, so we didn't know if we were going to get in."
Williams said he didn't have to sell his kids on playing in the tournament once he schooled them on the NIT's tradition.
"The NIT is a huge event. Its place in the history of basketball is something these kids don't know about it because they're too young," he said.
When asked if the strain of this season has been an "education," Williams said with a laugh: "I'd rather be uneducated, I can tell you that. I don't need any more education. I've got a college education with a master's degree. But I think we've learned things this year and I think I've learned things as a coach that I hope will be valuable to me."