An avid N.C. State hoops fan as a kid, The University of North Carolina at Pembroke senior forward was converted to Tar Heel Blue in the tenth grade by a teammate on his basketball team at West Bladen High.
“One of my good friends kind of pressured me,” Priest said. “He was a die hard North Carolina fan.”
Friday night, for the second time in his college career, he’ll test his skills against one of America’s most talented front courts, featuring All-American candidates Tyler Zeller and John Henson at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill.
“I can’t wait to show those (guys) what I’ve learned over the last three years,” Priest said before Tuesday’s practice. “It was a great feeling when we played there in 2008 and I can’t wait to do it again.”
It’s only an exhibition game, but this week’s road trip to preseason No. 1 North Carolina is a rare opportunity for Priest and the rest of UNCP’s mens basketball team to see how they stack up against college basketball’s premiere starting five. Tabbed as the ACC favorite by 57 of 59 media members, the Tar Heels return all top contributors from a team that won 29 games and advanced to the Elite Eight in 2010.
Future NBA lottery pick Harrison Barnes is a unanimous selection for the league’s Player of the Year.
“It’s an exhibition game against one of the best teams in the country but it still gives us a chance to read a scouting report and work on game preparation,” UNCP coach Ben Miller said. “I think it’ll be a really valuable experience for us.”
Coming off the school’s best season in 19 years, the Braves have their sights set on a second straight trip to the Division II NCAA Tournament and a strong finish in the Peach Belt Conference.
Expectations in Pembroke are the highest they’ve been in quite some time.
“It’s important for our players and fans to remember we still have a lot of work to do,” Miller said after his team finished 18-12 last season. “We’re still developing, still progressing as a team. We’re trying to put everything together and our guys understand they have to earn it every day.”
Priest, a Tar Heel, N.C. native, enjoyed career-highs in points, rebounds and blocks per game as a junior and became the Braves’ sixth man midway through the season. As a spark off the bench, Priest is expected to control the boards and match up with other low post threats in the PBC alongside George Blakeney and Mike Robinson.
It’ll be an entirely different animal in Chapel Hill.
“Obviously, UNC is extremely talented,” Miller said. “They’ll give us great, great competition.”
Miller was on Roy Williams’ staff at Kansas in 1995 as an administrative assistant. During his stint in Lawrence, Kan., the Jayhawks appeared in 10 NCAA Tournaments.
“We appreciate coach (Roy) Williams and his staff inviting us back to Chapel Hill,” Miller said. “It’s exciting for everybody … especially our players and our fans. We’ve told our guys to keep it all in perspective and to treat this like we would any other game.”
The Braves sold out their 500-ticket allotment for the 7:30 p.m. game two weeks ago. General admission seats inside the Smith Center are still available online for $10 at tarheelblue.com or by calling UNC’s ticket office at (919) 962-2296.
UNCP season tickets for Braves Club members went on sale Monday. The Braves open the regular season on Nov. 11 at home against St. Andrews in the first round of the UNCP Holiday Classic.
“I know our fans are excited but we understand nothing is going to be given to us,” Priest said. “If anything, it’s going to be harder than ever (this season) because we probably have a bullseye on our back.”
Staff writer Brad Crawford can be reached at (910) 272-6119 or at firstname.lastname@example.org