It wasn’t too long ago that North Carolina walk-on Jack Wooten got caught up in a switch during practice and found himself trying to guard 7-foot freshman Tyler Zeller.
So it’s been a little weird this week for the now-Elon-assistant-coach to be watching film, and trying to pick apart the tendencies of his former teammate, who is now a senior.
“It’s been kind of odd seeing them on film,’’ said Wooten, who grew up in Burlington, N.C., and was a member of the 2008 Final Four and 2009 national title teams at UNC. “Cheering for them as an alum is a lot different than scouting them.”
Wooten will be the latest former-Tar-Heel-player-turned-coach to be on the visitor’s bench when the Phoenix come to the Smith Center on Thursday night. He’s now in his third season with Elon, having started out as an unpaid Director of Basketball Operations before moving up to assistant coach last season.
I caught up with him earlier this week:
Q: Have you started to imagine what it’s going to be like to be on the visitor's bench?
A: It’s going to be different, definitely. The only time I’ve been down there, on that other bench, was for Midnight Madness my junior year on either the ‘White’ or ‘Blue’ team, whichever team was down there. So it’s going to be odd seeing it from that angle, for sure. But I think once the ball is tipped, and once we get going, we’ll have plenty to handle with those guys, so I think it will snap me out of it pretty early on.
Q: Jason Capel’s Appalachian State team recently came to the Smith Center to play UNC. King Rice is bringing Monmouth to town this weekend. Wes Miller was recently named head coach at UNC Greensboro. Why is it that so many UNC players go on to become coaches?
A: I think there’s a lot of factors in it. One -- and I’m an exception to this because I was a walk-on -- but Coach [Roy] Williams and Coach [Dean] Smith, they recruit guys that really think through the game, and are smart kids on and off the court. And when you’re able to think through the game as a player … break it down, that really helps when you’re a coach.
Another factor is, when you’re in a great program that values each person in the program … it makes you want to continue. Coach Williams made it very clear that things were fair, as far as what I got as a walk-on versus with what Tyler Hansbrough got as a scholarship guy. When you feel valued, you buy into the program.
And another thing: the coaches at Carolina really enjoy what they do. Especially coming into the JV program, and playing for Coach [Jerod] Haase and Coach [C.B.] McGrath, just watching them, it doesn’t look like work … and you want to do something you enjoy, whatever you do in life. I love what I do, and seeing them as an example, that took it to a whole other level for me.
Q: When did you know you wanted to be a coach?
A: I’d always thought about it. Even when I was a kid in middle school, high school, I’d think about plays, and ways we could beat the other team. I’d self-scout during games at times, I’d see the play the other team would run, and catch the signal, and I’d call out the plays to my team. … And once I got to JV at Carolina, it sort of took off from there. I kind of realized you get great opportunities when you’re involved in a program like Carolina, and I had the opportunity combined with a passion, and I really kind of took off at it.
Q: What are the strengths of your Elon team?
A: We’re young, first of all. We start three sophomores, a freshman and a senior. … We’ve done a good job of buying into defense, and held some teams to some lower numbers. And we like to shoot 3-pointers. We’ve got some guys who can make them, and we’ve definitely got some guys who will take them. We’ve got a big kid inside, Lucas Troutman, who’s our leading scorer and second-leading rebounder, he’s a really talented kid and led the league in blocks last year as a freshman. We would like to run offensively. But our identity is taking 3s, making 3s, and defending. That’s what we want our identity to be.
Q: What advice will you give your team, playing in the Smith Center?
A: We want to be poised, that’s the first thing. With youth sometimes, that’s tough. … With them, you take the fight to them. If you’re on your heels, that’s where Carolina thrives. You don’t attack John Henson inside, that’s when he gets 3.5 blocks a game. So we just need to attack. We play these teams because we want to get better. And we tell the guys: we want to see how you play against the best. This will be the best team we’ll probably play all year. We talk about fighting for 40 minutes, that no matter what happens … you take the fight to them.
Q: Do you have a favorite memory of playing in the Smith Center?
A: Man, there are a few. Beating Duke my senior year, just by virtue of who it is. But then again, you give them too much credit when you put them in the article.
I would say the [103-93 double-overtime, in 2008] win against Clemson when we were down big late. I love that that streak has held up through everything. I even had some friends -- well, I’ll call them friends -- who said they left the game when we were down big. And we made that huge run, and that was a pretty awesome moment.
Robbi Pickeral can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @bylinerp.