Heel, yes: Pete Nance — from Northwestern to North Carolina — takes a shot at the big time

The past four seasons are in the rearview. It’s here and it’s now for Nance, and there’s nothing more here-and-now in all of college basketball than the Tar Heels.

SHARE Heel, yes: Pete Nance — from Northwestern to North Carolina — takes a shot at the big time
North Carolina’s Pete Nance signals after knocking down a three-pointer.

North Carolina’s Pete Nance signals after knocking down a three-pointer.

Grant Halverson/Getty Images

What’s new in former Northwestern forward Pete Nance’s life?

Not much, aside from going from the bottom of the Big Ten to the top of the college basketball world. That would be North Carolina, folks. Chapel Hill. Home of the Tar Heels, ranked No. 1 in all the land going into the season.

Very little, other than filling the only available starting spot for last season’s national runners-up. Nance is walking in the shoes of Brady Manek, the wild-haired NCAA Tournament star who, by the end of an unforgettable run, was easily the most recognizable of all of UNC’s terrific players.

Nothing to see here, really, except for the 6-10 Nance — taking advantage of an extra year of eligibility because of the pandemic — going from shooting his threes in a quiet, 7,000-seat Welsh-Ryan Arena to performing in front of a raucous 21,000-plus at the Smith Center. Except for going from a Northwestern team that got little attention in its own backyard to a UNC squad absolutely obsessed over throughout the state. Whom do North Carolinians love more than the Tar Heels? Absolutely nobody, baby.

“You can definitely tell, definitely see it’s a bigger stage,” Nance said, “but I’m just trying to stick to my game and focus on what I need to do every day.”

Once upon a time, Nance was the highest-ranked recruit in Northwestern history. He committed in 2017, a few months after the Wildcats’ long-awaited breakthrough to the NCAA Tournament. Why did he go there instead of Ohio State? Instead of Michigan? He liked the people in Evanston, sure, but he also thought the Wildcats would win.

“Oh, for sure,” he said, “a program that was really on the rise.”

Northwestern v Michigan

Pete Nance in his Northwestern days.

Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images

But the winning didn’t happen. Northwestern’s records since appearing in the Big Dance stick out like a whole handful of sore thumbs: 15-17, 13-19, 8-23, 9-15 and 15-16. Nance endured the last four of those seasons — happily, as he made the case Tuesday in a post-practice phone call — as any positive momentum under coach Chris Collins disappeared.

“It was hard,” Nance said, “but I thought we did a really good job of never giving up on it. We gave a really good effort, played a lot of close games. I wouldn’t trade that experience for the world. There’s not one thing I would change about those four years.”

Well . . .

“Obviously, I wish we could’ve gotten a couple more wins.”

Hey, that’s what here and now are for. Nance and his new team are at Indiana on Wednesday in one of the highest-profile games of the early season, the favorites in the ACC and the Big Ten colliding as the centerpiece of what will be the final ACC/Big Ten Challenge. (Another Northwestern transfer, Ryan Young, is getting good minutes at Duke, which hosts Ohio State.)

The conferences’ always-compelling annual clash is going away, but not before Nance gets a taste of the best part of it. Northwestern’s 87-58 loss to Pittsburgh on Monday barely registered, but Heels-Hoosiers is a blockbuster — one of many Nance is certain to find himself involved in.

“It’s been such a great experience,” he said, “just being a part of this program, really just getting to be in it and realizing why it’s as successful as it is.”

What a joy it is for the Larrys, too. Larry Nance, Pete’s father, was a three-time NBA All-Star. Larry Nance Jr., Pete’s brother, is seven-plus seasons — not to mention around $50 million — into his own fine NBA career. Is Pete on a similar track? It’s a little soon to tell. He’s still in college after testing the draft waters in the offseason, but now he has blue blood surging through his veins and the whole family is loving it.

Besides, Pete is Pete. However it shakes out, that’ll be good enough.

“I definitely felt pressure when I was younger [to be] as good, if not better, than they were,” he said. “Growing up my whole life, everybody knew who I was. Everybody kind of went after me from a young age, excited to play against Larry Nance’s son and Larry Nance Jr.’s brother.

“But as I’ve grown older and grown into myself and into my own game, they’ve been nothing but supportive of me just to be myself and run my own race and have my own journey. They’ve been really happy for me, proud of me.”

In a game last week against Portland on the home court of the Trail Blazers — Larry Jr.’s former team — little brother played 35 minutes and scored a career-high-tying 28 points. The Heels were down four with six minutes left, but a 14-3 run, keyed in part by a 6-10 newcomer, put them over the top.

“He’s such a nice kid and he wants to fit in,” coach Hubert Davis said afterward. “I try to tell him, ‘The way you fit in is to be a dude. Don’t worry about being the new guy on the block. Like, we didn’t recruit you to be a role player. We recruited you to be what you did today.’ ”

The last four seasons are in the rearview. It’s here and it’s now for Nance, and there’s nothing more here-and-now in all of college basketball than the Tar Heels. If he shines, if he sinks, if he swims — whatever happens, it’s his time. And that’s a beautiful thing.

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