Three former Carolina Final Four participants came to the Smith Center on Sunday with a new team.
Unfortunately for them, the fifth-ranked Tar Heels still have national-championship caliber talent. UNC used those players to defeat Monmouth 102-65.
Monmouth head coach King Rice and assistants Derrick Phelps and Brian Reese all went to the Final Four together in 1991. Phelps and Reese returned in 1993 and won the national championship, Dean Smith's second.
"I told our kids that we battled," Rice said. "They were just better than us."
The 1993 team defeated then-Kansas Coach Roy Williams and his Jayhawks in the semifinals at the Final Four at the Superdome in New Orleans, home to this season's Final Four.
Rice, and probably in honor of his assistants as well, received a sustained and loud ovation before the game.
"I've been in here a million times," Rice said. "When I walked in here yesterday, I swear it seemed bigger. I'm like, 'Man, did they extend it somewhere?' I was always so comfortable in here, but yesterday it hit me when I walked in [that he was the opponent].
"The ovation at the beginning was unbelievable," Rice said. "I didn't expect that. It was very nice of the fans. I'm a true Carolina guy. What better feeling could you get when the fans give you a standing ovation?"
But on this day, Rice, Phelps and Reese had to watch what may well turn out to be the latest Final Four team at Carolina (13-2), and maybe even the next NCAA champion.
Carolina used its height, speed and shooting ability to run away from the Hawks (2-12). Rice change to a 2-3 zone at one time, and the move briefly slowed the Tar Heels.
But once Carolina stopped throwing the ball at arm level and bringing the shorter Hawks into play, UNC got back to moving the ball and getting great shots.
UNC took a 57-26 halftime lead, holding Monmouth to 34.4 shooting, out-rebounding the Hawks 28-10, while Carolina shot 61.8 from the field (11-32) and 54.5 percent from 3-point range (6-11).
Carolina shot 54.4 percent for the game, 38 from 3-point range. UNC out-rebounded Monmouth 55-26.
"Each and every game you have an opportunity to learn something," Williams said. "Our goal today was for my team to get better. I think we did some things that helped us today. I talked to them. You can learn in practice, but you can also learn in games.
"Which one do you like better? You like the games better, so let's try to learn some things in the games."
John Henson led the Tar Heels with 21 points on 9-of-12 shooting. He also had eight rebounds and three blocks. Henson's baseline jumper was dropping with regularity and there was nothing Monmouth could do about it.
"That is amazing," Rice said. "I'm a true Carolina fan. I watch like all fans. I sit there. I get mad. I yell. John Henson just keeps getting better. But every time I see him -- it's only once or twice a year -- he always comes over and says hello.
"He always has a big smile. He makes you feel special, and he's the main dude. He's the star. He's improved dramatically on the floor. He makes jumpers now. His free throw has smoothed out. It doesn't look crazy anymore. He is one of the best shot blockers ever. I know [Sam Perkins] blocked a whole bunch, and we had guys here who blocked them. But this kid is amazing at it. I'm happy he is a Carolina guy."
All five of UNC's NCAA titles had either a former coach or players on hand to represent that team. So it was fitting that Rice paid homage with a move at tipoff, which pointed all the way to the 1957 title game between Carolina and Kansas.
Coach Frank McGuire had 5-foot-10 Tommy Kearns jump ball against 7-1 Wilt Chamberlain that day.
Rice said he debated having 5-8 point guard Jesse Steele jump ball against Henson, with his 7-4 reach, to start the game. He did not decide for sure until he saw Lennie Rosenbluth in the stands to do it for sure.
"I asked the guys in the locker room, and they said no," Rice said. "Then when we went out there, and I saw Lennie Rosenbluth, I said 'We're doing it.' It just didn't work the way it worked in '57."
Williams said that having so many former players and coaches, including Rice, Phelps and Reese on the other bench, reminded him how special the UNC basketball program is.
"It was started by Coach McGuire, and Coach Smith enhanced it in every area," Williams said. "I feel very fortunate to just be the guy who's sort of in charge of it. This program is the best basketball family there is in college basketball. It has done it for years and years, and it's never backed up."
Rice and his assistants said that is how they feel as well.
"I played in Europe for 13 years," Phelps said. "Even in Europe, when I went somewhere people knew about Carolina basketball. I don't care what country I've been to, there is always somebody who says, 'Yeah, Carolina, Carolina.'
"You see Carolina shirts everywhere. The tradition is so big and so wide-range, not just in the States; it's unbelievable."