GLENDALE, Ariz. — Theo Pinson had the chance to get out. He knew Justin Jackson and Joel Berry II did, too.
All three had committed to North Carolina as high school juniors in early 2013 just before a sprawling academic scandal started to hit the program. Each player was a coveted five-star prospect with other coaches anxiously waiting for them to re-open their recruitments. Individually, each had to decide if keeping their pledge to UNC was really worth it.
What if the NCAA hit North Carolina with a tournament ban? What if it stripped away scholarships that could have robbed them of valuable teammates? It was all the table at that point and it left Pinson, Jackson, and Berry in a precarious situation.
There is no standard procedure for how the NCAA handles a scandal. The academic infractions that hang over UNC to this day are the greatest proof of that. Four years later, little has changed about the allegations or the timeline for a potential punishment. None of the three could have known that at the time.
Instead, sticking with the Tar Heels required a leap of faith. When Roy Williams told his three prized recruits everything was going to be OK, they believed him.
“I trusted coach with everything I had,” Pinson said on Sunday. “He told me nothing was going to happen. I didn’t want to go back on my word. This is where I wanted to be.”
Pinson was reflecting back on his journey with the Tar Heels a day before he plays in his second straight national championship game. His junior class has been the backbone of consecutive Final Four trips. On Monday, Pinson, Jackson and Berry will have the chance to cement their legacies forever against Gonzaga.
It’s no secret that North Carolina isn’t recruiting like it used to. From 2015-17, only one McDonald’s All-American has picked the Tar Heels. It might have North Carolina fans worried about the future, but the present remains as good as ever.
That’s because the Heels’ last great recruiting class continues to keep them on top of the college basketball world.
Pinson, Jackson and Berry only knew of each other in passing as recruits. Jackson was from Houston, Berry from Florida, and Pinson from North Carolina. There was one thing all three had in common, and it bonded them immediately. All three were winners at every level they ever played.
Berry won two state titles at Lake Highland Preparatory School in Orlando, and became the first player to ever be named Florida’s Mr. Basketball three times. Pinson led Wesleyan Christian Academy in High Point, N.C. to two state titles. Jackson won a national championship in 2012 playing for Homeschool Christian Youth Association.
“We’ve all been winners our whole lives,” Pinson said. “That’s the reason I came here. I wanted to compete for national championships. All the numbers and stuff is fine, but when you’re winning everything else gets taken care of.”
The three got closer when they were each named McDonald’s All-Americans in the spring of 2014. Of the 24 players that were in Chicago that weekend, 16 of them bounced from college after their first or second year. That includes NBA stars like Karl-Anthony Towns, Myles Turner, and Devin Booker, and also players like Cliff Alexander, Kevon Looney, and Rashad Vaughn who haven’t made much of an impact in the pros yet.
All the while, Jackson, Berry and Pinson stayed and kept on winning.
“Coming in we knew we could be a part of something extremely special,” Jackson said. “For us to still be here together at our second Final Four going through all this together, sometimes you can take it for granted. But it’s an extremely cool experience. It’s awesome to have brothers like that you can stick around with.”
Their games have proven to be a perfect complement for each other. Berry is the floor general and the best outside shooter. Jackson is a pure scorer. Pinson is the best athlete, the best defender, and a vital energy guy. Together they’ve kept Carolina afloat this season even after senior stars Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige departed after last season.
“We knew sooner or later it was going to be our time to lead the team,” Berry said. “This is what we wanted to come here for.”
There’s only one thing UNC’s prized class of 2014 hasn’t accomplished, and that’s a national championship. Gonzaga is the only team standing in the way.