By Dave Glenn
March 31, 2005
CHAPEL HILL If North Carolina captures the national championship in Roy Williams' second season as the head coach at his alma mater, enough stories will be told and written in the coming weeks that in all likelihood nothing important will be left out.
Heading into the Final Four, however, the national media continued to paint the Tar Heels in generally accurate tones but completely missed some of their finer strokes.
It's easy to see UNC, with point guard Raymond Felton, wing guard Rashad McCants, power forward Marvin Williams (still coming off the bench) and center Sean May, as the rare team with four future NBA first-round draft picks. It's easy to miss the fact that Carolina remains a team with plenty of weaknesses and imperfections, both collectively and individually.
It's easy to see the effectiveness of Roy Williams, who has poked and prodded his players so firmly and consistently over the last two seasons that they eventually came to embrace his main goals: becoming more unselfish, raising the intensity level on defense and playing at warp speed as often as possible. It's easy to miss the fact that, without the trust Williams and his assistants established with a group traumatized by the Matt Doherty era, his screams and pleas would have fallen on the same deaf ears Doherty so often encountered.
It's easy to make fun of Williams' admittedly corny nature, with his frequent tears and his regular dadgums and his extreme loyalty to Dean Smith and his stories about heroes (especially his mother) and his old-fashioned love of both Kansas (still) and UNC (always). It's easy to misinterpret those things as something other than the 100-percent, unadulterated feelings of a man whose sincerity on matters large or small never has been questioned by those who know him well.
"This is about believing every word (Williams) says, taking it to heart even if it makes you mad, and doing everything he tells you to do," May said. "That probably sounds simple to people, but it hasn't always been that way around here. Sometime last year, I think, we believed it: If we listen to everything Coach Williams says, great things will happen. It hasn't always been easy, but we definitely believe, and here we are."
Many of this UNC team's accomplishments will be recorded forever in the pages of history, whether or not it can get past a semifinal date with Michigan State and possibly a matchup in the final against either Illinois or Louisville. Ten or 20 years from now, the 2004-05 season will be remembered by Carolina fans with either fondness (already), reverence (with a noble exit) or immortality (1982 Michael Jordan, 1993 Donald Williams).
Start with the Final Four itself, an NCAA-best 16th for the Tar Heels. Remember the first-place (14-2) regular-season finish, UNC's first outright since 1993, in the top-rated conference in America. Consider the ACC accolades for May (first team), Felton (first team), McCants (third team), Jawad Williams (third team), Jackie Manuel (all-defensive) and Marvin Williams (rookie of the year).
"I think the hardest part of Coach Williams' job was convincing us that if we only worried about the team, everything else would take care of itself," Jawad Williams said. "We spent most of the last three years thinking too much about ourselves, and I count me in that. When we got past that, good things started to happen for all of us."
At the same time, many of Carolina's accomplishments this season may go unrecorded, unless a national championship attracts a more intense spotlight.
This latter, less obvious, list is lengthy. There was Felton, a prep All-American who dramatically changed his shooting form at his coach's request and quickly became an excellent long-range threat. There was May, giving up tasty treats and getting up for early morning runs in the offseason in an attempt to improve his stamina that has paid off handsomely. There was McCants, agreeing before the season to take fewer shots, then following through without complaint.
In the more general sense, Williams' greatest success may have been getting his players to respond to adversity with togetherness, resiliency and mental toughness. Doherty's players often made mistakes, then compounded them by hanging their heads and making more. Williams' players make plenty of mistakes, too, but they somehow wipe the slate clean quickly, and they usually come back fighting.
Manuel can dribble the ball off his foot at one end of the floor, then make a basket-saving block at the other. Felton can throw the ball out of bounds on one possession, then made a heady pass for a layup on the next. McCants can get chewed out for a missed assignment or a bad shot one moment, then make a series of great plays over the next two minutes. Melvin Scott's senior year has been hugely disappointing in many ways reduced playing time, bad defense, streaky shooting, shaky ball-handling, etc. but when the Tar Heels needed him against N.C. State (when McCants was sick) or more recently for crucial minutes against Villanova (when Felton was in foul trouble), Scott delivered in a big way.
During the wild celebration that took place after UNC's Elite Eight win over Wisconsin, Williams had some special moments with his three scholarship seniors Scott, Manuel and Jawad Williams. Scott was so excited he couldn't stop dancing, but the coach emerged with tears in his eyes.
"You know, I'm pretty emotional, and that was a special feeling," Roy Williams said. "Those kids went through a lot. Those kids went through something (including 8-20 in 2001-02) that no one at North Carolina had ever done, and I saw that from a distance. And then when I got there, I saw what kind of kids they were. (This is) special for everybody. It's special for me and my assistants, our families. But it's really special for those three kids, and I'll just leave it at that."
"That's what we talked about when we got here (one year after the seniors), is helping this program come back to the top," May said. "The emotions (going to the Final Four) are indescribable. You have to experience it for yourself, but it's an unbelievable feeling, and I just can't describe it. I can't put it into words."
Looking ahead, there are no guarantees. UNC survived Villanova despite sleep-walking through the opening minutes. The Tar Heels also escaped Wisconsin, thanks largely to yet another monster game from May, but they headed to the Final Four knowing they needed to play even better to emerge victorious.
May and Felton were outstanding through four games of the NCAA Tournament. McCants and Marvin Williams had some huge moments as well. But Manuel and David Noel were up and down, and everyone else (save Scott's Villanova rescue) appeared to be along for the ride. Defense and ball-handling, in particular, were the familiar concerns.
As a group, beyond Felton, the Tar Heels still have an unbelievably difficult time dribbling the ball while guarded or handling it smoothly in the open court. They dribble the ball off their feet. They fumble it out of bounds. They throw unnecessarily long passes in the backcourt and against traps. Because of those basic inadequacies and some poor decision-making, they may waste more possessions than any other team in the NCAA Tournament.
Felton, of course, makes up for a lot of those problems. He's faster with the ball than any player in UNC history and most in NCAA history. He's tough, reliable and skilled, and along with May he has taken the team upon his shoulders several times this season. When he leaves the game, every possession is an adventure for the Tar Heels.
"(Felton is) probably the closest thing (to indispensable) I've had in 17 years as a head coach," Williams said. "I would hate to think where we would be without Raymond."
With Felton, of course, the Tar Heels will be very tough to beat, as long as they play hard, play smart, play together and don't worry about who gets the credit. That, of course, is exactly what Williams wanted all along.
"If you don't play together as a team, share the basketball, play it on the defensive end of the floor and try to cover up for each other, you are not going to win," Williams said. "You can pick any five players that you want, in the NBA or college or anything, and if I have five other (talented) guys that play together as a team, I'll beat you and I'll beat you a lot because that's just the nature of the game."