CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Jackie Manuel sat down at a table in front of reporters Tuesday and answered questions about playing in the NCAA tournament for the first time.
The questions were once inconceivable, considering Manuel is a junior at North Carolina. But after missing the tournament for two straight years, the 18th-ranked Tar Heels are starting over.
No current Tar Heel has played in the NCAA tournament, a shocking stat considering the program went to a record 27 straight tournaments from 1975 to 2001. North Carolina opens the tournament against Air Force on Thursday, exactly three years after its last NCAA tournament game.
"We're concerned a little bit, but I think I'm hoping that our hunger will make that be a positive for us," North Carolina coach Roy Williams said of the Tar Heels' NCAA inexperience.
"I cannot imagine ... anybody in the country being more hungry than we are. This is North Carolina. And nobody on my team has ever been. If we're not hungry now, then we've got some major, major problems."
The Tar Heels, who are the No. 6 seed in the Atlanta Regional, haven't played an NCAA tournament game since suffering an 82-74 second-round loss to Penn State on March 18, 2001.
The next year, North Carolina's long NCAA streak ended in the ruins of an 8-20 season.
"It was rough," said Manuel, who was a freshman on that team. "I expected a winning season, NCAA tournament and the Final Four. We didn't live up to those expectations, so it was really tough on me especially being so young."
After playing in the NIT last year, North Carolina turned to Roy Williams, bringing Dean Smith's former assistant back to his alma mater to return the storied program to prominence. He had led Kansas to 14 straight NCAA tournament berths.
Williams left North Carolina in the middle of its streak, but returned to find the roster lacking tournament experience that once seemed a birthright.
In fact, North Carolina has the same amount of experience as the 11th-seeded Falcons, who are making their first trip to the NCAAs in 42 years.
North Carolina is in the tournament for the 36th time, tying it with UCLA for second-most appearances. Kentucky, the top-seed in the St. Louis Regional, is first with 45.
In addition, North Carolina is 81-35 all-time in the tournament with a record 15 trips to the Final Four and three national championships. This year's group of Tar Heels want to add to that lore.
And erase the memories of the past two seasons.
"We want to win, simple as that," said forward Jawad Williams, who was also a freshman on the 8-20 team in 2001-02. "I don't think anybody's ready to go home and call it a year yet."