For some, road to varsity begins with JV

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Standing on the Smith Center Court last Wednesday night, North Carolina sophomore Sasha Seymore was smiling but still catching his breath after one and a half hours of drills, pick-up games and conditioning sprints with five-dozen other junior varsity hopefuls.

“This whole process is kind of awesome,” said the Morehead-Cain Scholar from New Bern, N.C., who grew up a Tar Heels fan. “You play basketball the whole spring, the whole summer, the whole fall leading up to this in the pick-up gyms. But it’s nothing like coming back out here -- playing under the banners, with people watching you, and the pressure is back on again.”

Although UNC’s varsity basketball practice officially opens Saturday after Friday’s “Late Night With Roy Williams” festivities, the road to filling out that roster actually began during this first tryout for the junior varsity team.

Three or four JV veterans will ultimately be named to the varsity roster as the "Blue Steel" walk-ons, joining the likes of James Michael McAdoo, Reggie Bullock and Dexter Strickland.

Among those hopefuls: Seymore, who was going to play soccer at Johns Hopkins before earning his academic scholarship at UNC; Denzel Robinson, son of assistant coach Steve Robinson; and Frank Tanner, the younger brother of J.B. Tanner, a former JV player and varsity walk-on who was part of UNC’s 2009 national title team.

Twelve to 14 others will make the junior varsity team, which plays a schedule of prep schools and community colleges preceding varsity games during the season. Students are allowed to play JV for two years, and among the perks are front row seats to varsity games – and, of course, the hope of earning their way onto the varsity someday.

“Knowing there are [varsity] spots available no doubt drives up the numbers in tryouts,’’ said UNC assistant coach/JV coach C.B. McGrath. Tryout numbers usually range from 40 to 60, said McGrath, but more came out this season because last year's trio of JV walk-ons graduated.

“That just drives interest, drives everything. But the guys who play JV, they also enjoy just being part of a team again, working toward a common goal, wearing the Carolina blue. To be able to play in the Smith Center, that’s special,” said McGrath.

This will mark McGrath’s fifth season as JV coach, a duty he swapped back-and-forth over the previous nine seasons with Jerod Haase (now head coach at UAB). New assistant coach Hubert Davis will help out with the team, and may take it over by the end of the season.

North Carolina is one of the few schools left that boasts a JV basketball program, but it has always been important to head coach Roy Williams, a former JV coach under Dean Smith. Not only does it give regular students the opportunity to keep playing, it gives assistant coaches the chance to keep learning.

“Coach Williams always felt like that was an important job for him, that he learned a lot of things before he became a head coach. And Jerod and I have enjoyed doing it,” McGrath said.

“… A lot of times, we have more talented kids than not. But it’s been good to see a different kind of athlete, and get perspective on things. Because only being at Kansas and Carolina, I’ve obviously dealt with a lot of elite athletes, and haven’t necessarily coached the guys who really need to develop more, or are 6-2 rather than 6-10."

That's valuable, he said, because when and if he gets a head-coaching job, it might not be at a big-name school like Kansas or UNC -- but at a smaller one, where he may need to help more players evolve, a la JV.

One of the greatest parts of the job, McGrath said, is coaching and getting to know a JV player and eventually being able to tell him he’s earned a rare varsity roster spot.

One of the toughest, however, is having to tell a hopeful that he didn’t make it to the varsity bench.

“They’ve worked hard for one or two years -- but sometimes, it’s just about the numbers,’’ he said. “Sometimes, the spots just aren’t available.”

That’s what happened to Tanner last fall. After playing two JV seasons, he wanted to follow in his brother’s footsteps to varsity. But with so many returning walk-ons, he didn’t make the cut.

But he didn’t give up. Even though he had used up all of his JV eligibility, Tanner kept in shape so he could try out again. So there he was last Wednesday, first going through jump shot drills; then lining up to make defensive stops during one-on-one workouts; then sweating through rotating, nonstop five-on-five games; and finally sprinting through conditioning runs meant to test the players' mental (as well as physical) toughness.

“I do feel fortunate to have this opportunity, just like I know the other guys here feel fortunate for the opportunity, too,’’ Tanner, who is from Hendersonville, N.C., said. “… I’m just going to work my hardest, and hopefully follow in my brothers’ footsteps.”

McGrath planned to hold a second tryout Tuesday, with a third also planned this week to pare down numbers for his JV team. Ultimately, he’ll discuss the varsity prospects with Williams, who will make the final decision as to who will suit up for “Late Night,” and then practice with the varsity squad in hopes of earning a uniform.

“It’s in the back of everyone’s mind; the dream of every JV player is to one day make the varsity team,’’ said Seymore, who played JV last season. “But I think to make the varsity team, you first have to show you can be a great player on the JV team, and that involves working hard and being a team player.

“The JV basketball team here -- everyone knows they’re not a superstar, they know they’re not going to go play in the NBA. It’s team-oriented. Everyone’s out here because they love to play basketball. And that’s why this is so special, whether you make it to the varsity or not.”

Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.