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Behind North Carolina's Final Four difference-maker is a proud father who pushes him

GLENDALE, Ariz. – Theo Pinson Sr. was owning the Peabody Hotel lobby Sunday night in downtown Memphis. Wearing a baby blue jersey with his son’s number on it, Pinson was laughing and talking and reliving North Carolina’s thrilling victory over Kentucky to reach the Final Four.

Theo Jr. played a huge part in that victory, making several key plays in the final five minutes. The biggest was his heady drive nearly the length of the court and dish to Luke Maye for the winning basket, but there were others – a tough baseline drive for two points that started the decisive rally, four clutch free throws, a couple of defensive rebounds.

Theo Sr. was justifiably proud, and he also took a little credit for keeping his son’s head in the game at a point of crisis. When Carolina coach Roy Williams called timeout with his team down five, 64-59, with 5:03 to play, Theo Sr. called out to Theo Jr. from his seat behind the Tar Heels bench.

“Stay focused!” dad recalled telling his son. “I hollered it to him like it was high school or AAU. He looked at me with those big, bulging eyes just like mine, and I knew he was focused.

“He’d been taking a backseat to everyone, but, hell, we were getting ready to go home. Roy has his system and it works, but there ain’t no damn system when you’re down five. Throw the system out the door and let’s do what it takes to win the game.”

Cool story, dad.

Theo Pinson Jr. and the Tar Heels will play in their second straight Final Four. (AP)
Theo Pinson Jr. and the Tar Heels will play in their second straight Final Four. (AP)

I asked Theo Jr. about it Thursday in the locker room here – about the eye contact with his dad and then him turning the game around. He laughed.

“No, I didn’t notice him,” Pinson Jr. said. “But I probably heard him, with that voice.”

What we have here are a couple of characters – father and son livewires. Big personalities and big talkers.

Theo Jr. has made a habit of video-bombing Williams’ interviews, popping up over his coach’s shoulder with something to say.

“He bothers my vertigo,” Williams joked, looking over both shoulders while on the podium at a news conference Friday. “I’m always trying to figure out where he is.”

You can reliably figure out where Theo Sr. will be this tournament. The UPS driver will be near courtside, offering his feedback on what his son is doing.

Proud as he was of Theo Jr. at the end against Kentucky, he couldn’t resist needling him later for letting De’Aaron Fox shoot an open corner 3-pointer that launched the Wildcats’ desperate, last-minute comeback.

“What he didn’t know is that I got back-screened,” Theo Jr. explained. “I told him to check the film.”

Dad will definitely check the film. He attends every game he can, but some road games he will watch on TV at home – on a separate TV from his wife, Barbara, who played collegiately at Charlotte. She’s an energetic and outspoken viewer, whereas Theo Sr. is more restrained.

“Mom really gets into it, yelling and stuff,” Theo Jr. said. “Dad likes to pretend he’s critiquing the game.”

The critiques are all positive these days. Having the 6-foot-6 junior healthy has made a big difference to the Heels.

Pinson has played exactly half of UNC’s 38 games, missing the first 16 with his second broken foot of his college career and three more at midseason with a sprained ankle. The Heels’ record is 16-3 with him, 15-4 without him, but that tells only part of the story. He’s the offensive mix master, making everything flow more smoothly and productively at that end of the floor.

When Pinson has played, Carolina’s assist-to-turnover ratio is 1.67 to 1. When he’s been out, that drops to 1.39. He leads the team in assists in the 19 games he has played, and his length and athleticism defensively helped limit Kentucky’s Fox to 13 points Sunday – Fox’s lowest-scoring total in March.

“He’s really a playmaker,” Williams said. “He sees things happening quicker, is able to make a decision quicker and able to make the player quicker than probably anybody on our team.”

Pinson is one of six players on the North Carolina team who played in the national title game last year, losing to Villanova at the final horn on a history-making shot by Kris Jenkins. The Tar Heels, like the other three teams here, are built on veterans – these are not one-and-done operations like Kentucky and Duke. But they’re the only team here who knows the pressure and big stage of the Final Four.

“Understanding we can win under duress and in pressure situations is huge,” Pinson said.

The Heels are a triumph of continuity, which is a near-foreign concept in modern college basketball. Not only have they been 12 years without a one-and-done player, but they’ve been seven years without a transfer. North Carolina is something of a throwback program, to the days when players hung around for four years.

That’s not entirely by design, as Williams has acknowledged several times. He recruited Jayson Tatum, Fox and Malik Monk, all highly likely one-and-done players in the current freshman class. He just didn’t sign them.

Williams blames some of the perceived recruiting downturn of recent years on the endless NCAA investigation of institutional academic fraud at North Carolina. But if he’s made back-to-back Final Fours, those recruiting misses certainly haven’t held back the blueblood program.

Pinson is almost certainly a four-year college player, which might not have been in the plans when he was a McDonald’s All-American and a national top-15 prospect coming out of high school. But after missing 33 UNC games due to injury and not yet developing a reliable jump shot, he’s traded any early NBA dreams for two Final Fours.

It’s not a terrible trade.

“Theo went through a lot,” said Theo Sr. “But he’s still so positive. I like to keep my household positive, and Theo is an extension of that. He’s enjoying every day of his life to the maximum.”

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