UNC preseason begins with ... tutus?

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Six-foot-10, 260-pound freshman Joel James probably didn’t imagine his North Carolina career would begin in a tutu. Neither, likely, did classmates Marcus Paige, Brice Johnson or J.P. Tokoto.

But such is the ritual of “Late Night With Roy Williams,” UNC’s annual team introduction that precedes the official start of basketball practice. Part dancing, part videos, part scrimmage, Friday marked Tar Heels fans’ first chance to see their team -- which lost four starters to the first round of the NBA draft -- at the Smith Center before real workouts begin at 9 a.m. Saturday.

“My freshman year, I would have been, ‘Naaaah, I can’t do the tutu,’” redshirt junior Leslie McDonald said, laughing after his “blue” team won the event-ending intrasquad scrimmage 37-27. “… But Joel’s a big dude, and to see him in a tutu, that’s funny.”

It was a night filled with emotion … and applause and dancing.

UNC changed up “Late Night” a bit this season, beginning the evening with an Olympics-style opening ceremony during which each of the school’s sports teams was introduced, and walked around the court.

After each of her players was introduced individually, women’s basketball coach Sylvia Hatchell pulled chancellor Holden Thorp -- who recently resigned, effective at the end of the school year -- out of the stands to join her near midcourt. The women’s players then hoisted him atop their shoulders, before commencing with their own skits and videos.

Finally, it was time for what most of the patient, light-stick-wielding fans were waiting for: men’s basketball introductions. And the only cheer that was louder than the one for McDonald and senior Dexter Strickland -- who have both fought through ACL injuries, and opted to be introduced together -- was the roar for Williams.

The Hall of Fame coach, who is still recovering from a surgery to remove a tumor from one kidney and a biopsy on a tumor in his other kidney (both were non-cancerous), grew emotional as the crowd’s standing ovation lasted more than a minute. Earlier in the day, his Fast Break Against Cancer Breakfast raised $150,000 for UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center -- but this was about being back on the court with his players after a serious cancer scare.

And his players understood the fans’ appreciation.

“It’s history -- just to see that icon, everybody supporting him,” McDonald said.

After the team’s dance routines -- which included some ballerina moves by the freshmen (thus the tutus), then a salsa shimmy and some Broadway kicks by the rest of the veterans -- the team managed to coax Williams into a few shag-like moves.

Afterward, he sat behind the scorer’s table with Strickland and smiled as he watched the blue-white scrimmage. Strickland, still working his way back from February ACL surgery, did not play as a precautionary measure, a team spokesman said. But the guard will practice Saturday.

Sophomore P.J. Hairston led the “Blue” team with 12 points in the unofficial stats, while Paige added 7 and Joel had 6. Junior Reggie Bullock and sophomore James Michael McAdoo scored 7 points apiece for the “White” team.

The night seemed enjoyable to them all, although the veterans know Saturday morning’s opening workout will be much different than Friday’s festivities.

“Get your mind ready,” McDonald said when asked how to prepare for a first practice. “We know that this is interacting with the crowd, but tomorrow is the big show. … If you saw us diving on the floor tonight, imagine what we’ll be doing tomorrow.”

Freshmen were not available to talk about their performances (dance or scrimmage); per team rules, they are not allowed to do interviews with media until after they play in their first regular-season game.

But it sounds like at least one guy didn’t have much to say about some of his dance apparel, anyway.

After ESPN recruiting analyst Dave Telep tweeted “@marcuspaige15 you have some explaining to do with the tutu at UNC's Midnight Madness,” Paige, (whom Williams expects to start at point guard this season) offered this response via Twitter: “I’d rather not talk about it...lol”.

Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.