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Star Coach Inherits Top-heavy Team With Depth, Size Woes

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

By Eddy Landreth
Chapel Hill (N.C.) News

November 17, 2003 CHAPEL HILL — No school in America more eagerly anticipated the start of basketball season than North Carolina. Coach Roy Williams has finally come home, leading Tar Heel fans to believe their days in basketball purgatory are at an end. His charge is to restore Carolina to its position as a national championship contender, but he can't even think of playing at the Final Four again, much less winning a title, until his team earns a bid to the tournament.

The Tar Heels missed the last two NCAA Tournaments, snapping a record streak of 27 consecutive appearances under Dean Smith and Bill Guthridge. And now Williams is supposed to become David Copperfield and make all the problems disappear overnight.

“I'm no miracle worker,” is Williams' response.

There is reason for optimism, though. Matt Doherty had the misfortunate to be the head coach when Carolina's foundation crumbled, but he re-stocked the program with the kind of players who made UNC great under Frank McGuire, Smith and Guthridge.

The question facing Williams is whether there are enough of those kids to get the job done in his first season back at his alma mater. The coach said his three biggest concerns are “depth, ability to rebound the basketball and ability to take care of the basketball.”

Foul trouble and the potential for injury hover above this team like a menacing cloud. Recent failures on the court and last season's injury to center Sean May feed such fears. When May broke his foot in December 2002, the Heels' season and Doherty's career began to unravel.

At the same time, Williams' presence and the return of all the key contributors from a 19-16 team fuel the hope that the turnaround can happen quickly. A capacity Smith Center crowd of 21,700 recently watched “Late Night With Roy,” and optimism abounds in Chapel Hill.

“We've had it in Carmichael before, but to go from 10,800 to 21,000 and whatever it is here … there were even people sitting in the aisles, so that was pretty impressive,” Williams said. “It's North Carolina basketball and people are hungry. People are hungry for excitement; they're hungry for some wins.”

There is little doubt Williams has some talented players. Raymond Felton could be the best point guard in the country, and shooting guard Rashad McCants is a scoring machine.

“Rashad McCants can score,” Williams said. “That's a great talent. He can shoot the ball. He can put the ball on the floor. He can take it to the basket. I want him to focus on being a complete and total basketball player.”

May is healthy again, and he is an outstanding prospect. Forward Jawad Williams is stronger, more mature and should be a leader and major contributor. Guard Melvin Scott came into his own at the end of last season, and swingman Jackie Manuel is learning not to fire away from the three-point line while focusing on doing what he does well.

Yet an incident during the annual Blue-White intrasquad scrimmage highlighted just how fragile this team remains. May fell to the court with a strained calf muscle, and the crowd went silent.

“I was scared,” May said. “I didn't know what really happened.”

Fortunately for the Tar Heels, May was not hurt seriously, but the moment wasn't helped by the fact that McCants was sitting on the bench in a suit at the time. He missed a series of practices with a strained quadriceps muscle. He did return for the first exhibition, but he didn't start that day because he had missed so much practice.

Between the Blue-White game and the exhibition, an injury to 6-6 sophomore David Noel created more unease. Noel could miss two months with a torn ligament in his right thumb.

“We were a thin team to begin with, and this just makes it thinner,” Williams said. “With David we had seven guys who had been successful at one time or another in a college basketball game and no one else. You take that out and now you only have six. David would have either started or been the first guy off the bench. Justin Bohlander has to step up and be able to go into the game a little quicker.”

Bohlander is a 6-8 walk-on from Winston-Salem who is a thin 200 pounds. He's going to get pushed around some, but he's also going to make some plays.

“He's not very mature compared to some of those other guys physically, but he does have a good feel for the game,” Williams said. “We need him to help us.”

Felton is the rock on which this team is built. He is often spectacular. In the Tar Heels' upset victory against Maryland in the 2003 ACC Tournament, Felton looked like the second coming of Phil Ford when Carolina went to the Four Corners offense.

The sophomore from Latta, S.C., is similar to former Duke great Jason Williams in that he combines excellent quickness with great strength. Felton made five of six shots from the floor, scored 11 points, passed 12 assists and made four steals in the Tar Heels' 97-59 exhibition victory over North Carolina Central.

Expect Felton to accumulate a truckload of assists this season. Williams wants the Tar Heels to run every time they get the ball, not just when the opportunity presents itself.

“It's all about mental toughness,” Jawad Williams said of playing this new style. “You've got to be able to fight through fatigue.”

The keyword is “move.” Williams insists his players move the ball rapidly down the court on offense, move their feet on defense and move the ball quickly and with as little dribbling as possible.

Felton's physical gifts, his basketball skills and his intelligence make him the perfect driver for Williams' high-octane offense. In turn, Felton is blessed with the most athletic team at UNC since 1998, when Vince Carter and Antawn Jamison dunked passes from Ed Cota.

What the Tar Heels lack, in addition to depth, is size. While Duke has three players on its roster listed at 6-10 or taller, UNC has only one. It's almost as if the Blue Devils and Tar Heels have traded teams: an old Smith club for a wing-dominated Duke team.

The place this will hurt most is rebounding. Teams consistently beat Carolina on the offensive boards last season, and no matter how much Williams preaches boxing out and going hard for the ball, it could happen again.

UNC should score points in bunches this year, should be a much-improved defensive team and definitely will be a happier bunch on and off the court.

But the Tar Heels are going to need some old-fashioned good luck to meet the expectations they carry into Williams' first season. This team walks a fine line between the failures of the recent past and the hope for a brighter future.