CHAPEL HILL, N.C. - Wayne Ellington has warned his Tar Heels teammates about playing Penn at the Palestra tonight.
"The Philly atmosphere. How close everybody is on the court," said Ellington, who played twice at the Palestra for Episcopal Academy as a senior in 2006. "How loud it got when Oak Hill held the ball on us."
The freeze strategy helped NCAA and NBA feeder program Oak Hill Academy beat Ellington and the Churchmen. His memories aren't all bad: Ellington hit the game-winner at the Palestra against Neumann-Goretti that year, too.
Now the No. 2 scorer for the No. 1 team in the country, Ellington, a sophomore, is coming home - thanks, in large part, to coach Roy Williams' tradition of taking players back to their roots.
"Even going back to the first couple of years at Kansas, when we didn't have that much control over the schedule, we always try to get guys back home," Williams said. "We always have. We always will."
Not that Williams minds such trips to basketball's holy grounds.
"The Palestra itself is a wonderful, wonderful arena," Williams said, smiling. "I like old gyms. You go in there and it smells bad. I like that kind of thing. You don't have to have all the bells and whistles for me. I coached in the Palestra as an assistant and took the Kansas team up there. It's a wonderful environment."
Predictably, Ellington, born in Philadelphia, has turned out to be a pretty good player. He scored a combined 2,211 points in high school, first for Daniel Boone High in Reading, then for Episcopal.
He has packed some solid muscle on his 6-4, 200-pound frame and has improved his off-the-dribble game.
"He didn't have quite enough confidence to put the ball on the floor as much as he does now," Williams said. "Somebody can't give him a slight bump and knock him off-balance as much as they could last year."
His maturity, combined with quickness and a buttery jump shot, has helped him to an 18.0 average on 51.7 percent shooting, including 50 percent (18-for-36) from three-point range.
That said, Ellington knows that playing at the Palestra can be unkind to even the best players and teams. And he can't wait.
"The Palestra's a great place to play in Philly. There's a lot of tradition behind it," Ellington said of the 80-year-old gym. "I'm going to let them know how the fans are going to be, and how tight it's going to be, how everybody's going to be on top of us. Just be ready." *