Hitting the Books: Bulldog players gather for study hall on the second floor of Ramsey Library five evenings a week.
It Takes Hard Work
Bulldog basketball heroes earn success with effort and teamwork on and off the court
From the podium, John Williams scanned the crowd of basketball fans who greeted the Bulldogs when they returned to campus after their magical run in the post-season. The lone senior among the team's stars, Williams was the first player to step to the microphone, but his first words had nothing to do with basketball. Instead, as he craned his neck, looking for one of his professors, he said, "Please, just give me a little time—I'll get the work done."
Williams and his teammates had every right to ask for extensions of classroom assignments. The Bulldogs had extended their season and time away from campus by sweeping the Big South Conference Tournament, and winning the first game of the NCAA Tournament. Their journeys through Conway, S.C., and Dayton, Ohio, had earned them a trip to Washington, D.C., for a date with the much bigger, top-seeded University of Pittsburgh team.
In the first half of that final game, the Bulldogs put up a battle that surprised many analysts, but the effort took a toll and Pitt eventually prevailed. "It was 10 times the normal level of intensity," said Williams. "I put out so much energy in the first half that I was cramping out in the second half." It was an exhausted group of student-athletes that returned home to face the academic work that needed to be made up, with final exams just five weeks away.
But the Bulldogs, who excelled on the court in crunch time, also had been preparing for academic crunch time. "We were doing the homework whenever we could," said Williams. "I've also taken summer school classes every year, so my course load isn't as heavy during the basketball season."
Even after the post-season ended, Williams had yet another personal road trip in store—this one to Houston where he finished second in the national Final Four Slam Dunk Contest—and he earned his bachelor's degree in Management in May, with a concentration in Marketing, and a minor in Economics. "I told my parents a while back that I'm here to get an education first," said Williams, whose parents drove from Raleigh to Dayton to watch their son play in the NCAA Tournament game. "I've always been an athlete. I wanted to focus on something I needed work in."
I told my parents a while back that I'm here to get an education first. I've always been an athlete. I wanted to focus on something I needed work in."
—Bulldog John Williams '11
That willingness to put in needed work was also a key to the Bulldogs' on-court success this season. "The one thing that was different about this team," said Head Coach Eddie Biedenbach, "is that we had three guys in particular that were motivated for off-season work: juniors J.P. Primm and Matt Dickey, and John Williams. When you have experienced players that are talented like that, and they know how much you have to sacrifice in order to be good, those kind of guys win close games. And those three guys were willing to do all of that last summer."
That leadership helped establish a tone that led to improved attitude and performances by the entire team, says Biedenbach. And he was proud to see it shine through when the Bulldogs found themselves in the national media spotlight with their NCAA Tournament overtime victory. "We got good national publicity because the attitude of our players came across in the interviews," said Biedenbach. "And on the court, I think we demonstrated a 'teamness' that was very good for the country to see."
It takes a team
The solidarity so evident on the court this season also characterizes the daily life of these student athletes. Many of them room together in the residence halls. "I mostly hang out with the team," said Dickey, a Trussville, Ala., native. "We're together all day." Players and coaches eat together every weekday morning in the dining hall. "When I see them at breakfast," said Biedenbach, "I know they're trying to eat well and are on their way to class."
And five evenings a week, there is study hall that is mandatory for all players until they establish and maintain a certain GPA. This provided a structured way to catch up on work when players were emotionally as well as physically drained after the NCAA Tournament.
"We were gone maybe two or three weeks," said Madison Davis, a red-shirt sophomore from Waynesville, "emailing teachers, trying to keep in contact—that was definitely hard." "It's not fun missing class," agreed Primm, who hails from Dickson, Tenn. "It was tough," said Josh Seligson, a red-shirt freshman from Raleigh, "but with the study hall and with the coaches staying on us, I didn't have a problem."
Assistant Coach and alumnus Nick McDevitt ('01) says that the coaching staff is able to play that role because of the time they invest in relationships with the young men. "You have to be around your players, you have to be present," he said. "We all come from different backgrounds; we all take criticism and advice and things like that differently, so you have to learn each player's personality in order to help them maximize their potential."
Coaches and players alike also credit the university faculty for offering crucial academic and personal support to the student-athletes. "If you go to a big university with 20,000 students, they have tutors because they don't have access to the professors," said McDevitt. "Here, you have direct access to your professor and the people here are great, with open-door policies. I tell them, 'your tutor is your professor.'"
The Bulldogs will certainly miss John Williams next season, but will be rooting for him as he works to earn a spot in the NBA or with a professional team abroad. J.P. Primm originally declared for the NBA draft, but did not hire an agent and then withdrew his name, so he will be eligible to return to the Bulldogs next season and earn his diploma. Matt Dickey says he is on course to graduate in May 2012, and hopes to play professionally after that.
With their professional aspirations fueled by this season's success, backcourt mates Dickey and Primm are working that much harder this summer to take their games to an even higher level.
Bulldog fans can also expect further improvement from Chris Stephenson '12 (Punta Gorda, Fla.), Jaron Lane '13 (Greenville, N.C.), Quinard Jackson '12 (West Palm Beach, Fla.), and D.J. Cunningham '13 (Waterford, Ohio), all of whom played key roles last year.
For Bulldog fans, the next big moment will come Nov. 13, when Coach Roy Williams and the Tar Heels of UNC-Chapel Hill come to Asheville to meet the Bulldogs for the grand opening of UNC Asheville's new Kimmel Arena.