By Dave Skretta/The Associated Press
NEW YORK — This isn’t where Marcus Ginyard expected to end his career when he signed a letter of intent with North Carolina four years ago.
He expected to be playing in the Final Four, of course, just not this one.
So forgive him for speaking quietly, slouching ever so slightly, looking just a little bit out of place Monday when he joined a few other players from Rhode Island, Mississippi and Dayton for a news conference before the semifinals of the NIT.
The truth is, Ginyard’s entire team looks out of place in New York.
Twelve months removed from cutting down the nets after its fifth national championship, North Carolina is trying to make bittersweet history. No school has ever followed a title on basketball’s biggest stage with an NIT championship at Madison Square Garden.
“To me it’s still a championship. You just have to put out of mind it’s not what you wanted,” Ginyard said, suddenly perking up. “It speaks to greater life lessons, you know? You’re not always going to be given what you want or put in the position that you want, but you just have to do the best you can with what you have.”
The bluest of the bluebloods, North Carolina joined a dubious list this season only eight teams long — since the NCAA tournament expanded in 1975 — by following a national championship by missing college basketball’s signature event. The last was Florida in 2008, when the Gators had four juniors leave early for the NBA draft.
Early departures are part of the reason the Tar Heels have stumbled, too. Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington followed seniors Tyler Hansbrough and Danny Green into the play-for-pay ranks, rather than returning to Chapel Hill for one more season.
The bigger problem, though, has been injuries that ransacked a lineup that was already fairly thin. Nine players have combined to miss 43 games, from Ed Davis’ broken wrist to Tyler Zeller’s fractured foot to season-ending injuries to brothers, David and Travis Wear.
“I’ve never experienced anything like this, ever,” said coach Roy Williams, who qualified for the NCAA tournament every year as a head coach except his first season at Kansas, when the school was on probation.
“It wasn’t hard to get them motivated, it was hard to get over the disappointment of how poorly we played to get in this position,” Williams added. “I told them if someone invited us, we were going to play, I didn’t give a darn what they said. Then it was up to the kids.”
It hasn’t been easy, and the Tar Heels received no favors because of their name.
They were only seeded fourth in their corner of the bracket, which meant they had to go on the road after their first game. And even that “home” game was awkward, because renovations at the Dean Smith Center began after the regular season, forcing them to play an official game at Carmichael Arena for the first time since January 1986.
North Carolina handled William & Mary before winning close games at Mississippi State and Alabama-Birmingham, two teams that were on the NCAA bubble Selection Sunday.
“We’re in a position you never dreamed to find yourself, and a lot of other people never imagined a team like North Carolina would have to play in the NIT,” Ginyard said. “But it’s just a joy for us to be able to play, and there’s where a lot of the change has come. We’re just happy to play, and we’re more excited and more enthused out there on the court.”
Don’t think for a moment that Rhode Island will be intimidated when the game tips Tuesday night, shortly after Ole Miss and Dayton meet in the first semifinal.
Rhode Island had the highest RPI of any team to miss the NCAA tournament once all the league tournaments were sorted out. The Rams also went on the road to beat Boston College and Virginia Tech, something that North Carolina failed to accomplish.
“We’re playing against a formidable team, a Hall of Fame coach, with a lot of history,” said Rhode Island junior Delroy James. “But we’re not playing against history.”
The Rams are playing in their first NIT semifinals since the 1945-46 season, when they lost to Kentucky in the championship game, while Mississippi and Dayton are much more accustomed to playing in front of smaller crowds this time of year.
The Rebels are in the semifinals for the second time in three seasons and have made three trips to the NIT under fourth-year coach Andy Kennedy, while Dayton is playing in the tournament for the 22nd time, second only to St. John’s for the most of any school.
“A lot of people make excuses and reasons not to play in this tournament, but I view it different,” Kennedy said. “I view it as a way to keep playing and win a championship.”