By Eddy Landreth
Chapel Hill (N.C.) News
April 11, 2005
ST. LOUIS As confetti rained down on the crowd, the players and the floor at the Edward Jones Dome on the final night of the college basketball season, North Carolina celebrated not only its fourth NCAA Tournament championship but one of the great turnarounds in sports history.
The Tar Heel seniors Jackie Manuel, Melvin Scott and Jawad Williams hugged one another, said a prayer and cried. Their remarkable journey ended in an unimaginable fashion from when they were freshmen on an 8-20 team.
"Jackie, Melvin and I used to joke that maybe we should not walk across campus together," Williams said, "because someone might snipe us for going 8-20 at Carolina."
Fittingly, as the three shared their moment, second-year UNC coach Roy Williams walked over and wrapped his arms around them. He had just captured his first NCAA title, too, in his case after being labeled the best coach not to win one.
"The biggest thrill to me, and I mean this from the bottom of my heart," Williams said the next day, "was being able to be involved with Jackie, Jawad and Melvin. And I'm telling you, it was a great thrill to me. They were hugging and saying a little prayer. They allowed me to join in. That was the greatest moment you can possibly have."
Early Emphasis On Effort, Team
When Williams came to Chapel Hill, he set out to help those three kids trust again. They had been through two years of turmoil before Carolina forced Matt Doherty to resign. Even when Doherty stepped aside, many in the national media vilified the players for creating a mutiny.
So when Williams finally said yes to his mentor Dean Smith and returned from Kansas to coach UNC, he found a collection of talented individuals who were skeptical and more concerned with their own welfare than that of the team.
"When I got there, I thought they were really good kids," Williams said. "But they had had some turmoil. I think it's human nature to try to grab onto something that you can be a little more successful with. A lot of times in basketball, that's an individual thing. So the primary focus for us was to be focused on that name on the front of the jersey, not the name on the back, the name of our team. We had to get them to focus on that team aspect of it."
Williams and his players concede that they were only marginally successful in that transition during the 2003-04 season. Selfishness remained a problem, and the players typically went their separate ways off the court.
A loss to Texas in the second round of the NCAA Tournament helped to sober the whole crowd. Williams did his part, too. He basically told them defense would become a priority when practice started again, and the selfishness on offense would end, or the offending player would not play.
"Our whole mindset has changed," junior swingman David Noel said as practice for the 2004-05 season began. "Last year we came in not knowing exactly what Coach wanted. We tried to play it by ear. This year we know exactly what he wants. He wants us to go out and play hard every game and leave it all out on the floor basically, just do what he asks. It's that plain and simple."
Williams could not believe he had to coach effort during that first season. Playing as hard as possible had simply been understood during his time as an assistant at UNC and during his 15 years as a head coach at Kansas.
Nevertheless, he handled his first Carolina team as gingerly as he could because of its past experiences. He was careful to avoid the many stories of personal alienation that led to Doherty's awkward demise.
"I think when Coach first came in, he was more worried about our feelings," Manuel said. "He really didn't want to rub anybody the wrong way. This year he changed that. He just wanted everybody to work hard. It really didn't matter how we felt about it."
Next: Hard Work, No Excuses
During the offseason, the players worked hard on their bodies, their games and their camaraderie. Thanks to 6 a.m. workouts and improved eating habits, junior center Sean May reshaped his physique. At the request of the coaching staff, junior point guard Raymond Felton revamped the mechanics of his previously inconsistent jumpshot. Meanwhile, rather than going their separate ways, the players began to socialize together.
Since the junior class had arrived on campus in the fall of 2003, there had been a lot of talk about talent and turning things around. When October 2004 and a new season rolled around, the Tar Heels knew the time for talk had ended.
"We have no more excuses left to use," May said. "We've used every excuse in the book. So let's go out there and prove it."
Then a funny thing happened. Carolina lost its season opener to Santa Clara, a team that went on to finish the season with a losing record (15-16). UNC had played the game without Felton, who was serving a one-game suspension by the NCAA for playing in an unsanctioned summer league.
"(Felton) is the closest thing I have ever had to an indispensable player in my 17 years of coaching," Williams said later in the season. "I really believe that. I would hate to think where we would be without him. He is absolutely phenomenal at both ends of the court."
UNC left California and headed straight to Hawaii for a tournament. There, while other teams relaxed by the pool, the Tar Heels went through some of the toughest practices of their careers. They then blew the competition Brigham Young, Tennessee and Iowa off the floor.
The Tar Heels finally looked like the team that was ranked No. 4 in the preseason Associated Press poll. They forced turnovers in bunches. They shut down teams in the half-court game in a fashion they had not shown in years. Thanks to Felton, their running game operated at such an efficient pace it seemed to stun opponents.
Stunned was how Maryland coach Gary Williams looked after UNC beat the Terrapins 109-75 on Jan. 8. Georgia Tech, which had been ranked in the top 10 for much of the early season, got similar treatment when the Yellow Jackets visited Chapel Hill. They lost 91-69 and seemed dazed as they walked out of the gym to the bus. Even mighty Kentucky could not escape the wreckage. UNC drilled the Wildcats 91-78 and out-rebounded the taller opponent by 21 in a game in December.
Rookie Reserve Typified Talent
One enduring symbol of Carolina's strength throughout the year was the sight of 6-9 freshman Marvin Williams coming off the bench.
He gradually proved to be the best free throw shooter on the team. His combination of size, athleticism, shooting ability and ball-handling skills would have made him a star on almost any other team.
What really set him apart, though, was his attitude. He could have entered the NBA draft out of high school and would have gone early in the first round. Yet he had to come off the bench at Carolina.
That type of situation often creates problems, but not with Williams. UNC's upperclassmen called him "the perfect teammate." The Carolina coaches said they don't remember him complaining not one time about anything all season, not even the Tar Heels' long-held tradition of having the rookies carry the team's bags on road trips.
"If they could give me enough food to eat," Roy Williams said, "I'd coach for nothing if they were all Marvin Williamses. No question about it."
Indeed, Marvin Williams served as UNC's sixth man with a smile. His presence and his place in the pecking order had many opponents shaking their heads.
"If there are people better than them, I don't want to play them," Vermont coach Tom Brennan said after his team lost 93-65 at the Dean Dome on Dec. 21. "I had enough. You might not believe this, but we're good. Honest to God, we're good. At our level, we're very good. The rest of the season, we are as good, or better, than anybody we play.
"But we weren't at our level tonight. We were at the very top level. They are as good as any team."
Brennan turned out to be correct on all counts. His team finished 25-7 and knocked Syracuse out of the NCAA Tournament. The Tar Heels proved to be better than anyone else by winning the national championship.
Brennan said all he had to do was see Jawad Williams starting over Marvin Williams to know that Roy Williams had a loaded team. The coach had everyone laughing with his way of describing it, but he meant what he said about Carolina's talent. It was immense.
"Let me get this right: It's the other Williams that is the lottery pick, right?" Brennan said. "It's not Jawad? It's the other one? I can't believe that the one guy is going to be a lottery pick and he can't even play. The guy who plays ahead of him gets 15 points, and he's just on the all-help team. That's pretty good. When he's an all-help guy, you know you're loaded."
Media Debate Motivated Team
In one of the more interesting turns of the season, many in the national media eventually would seize the idea of talent and use it against Carolina. By the time the Final Four loomed, top-ranked Illinois became known affectionately as the best team in the country. UNC often was described as the group of players with the most talent.
This, of course, was a backhanded compliment meant derisively toward Carolina. It so irritated the Tar Heels that they used it as fuel in their run to the title. They all had admitted there were problems the year before. But since the Santa Clara loss, they had done a very good job of sharing the ball, as well as the work on defense.
The Tar Heels led the ACC in assists per game. In conference games only, they led the league in field goal shooting (50 percent), field goal percentage defense (39.5 percent) and scoring defense (69.6 points per game).
Rashad McCants epitomized this change. He led the league in scoring as a sophomore, averaging 20 points per game. He scored 16 per game in 2004-05, as he took far fewer shots, made many more passes and even became at times an effective defensive player. That last attribute made the difference in a tight game against Villanova in the Sweet 16.
As the year progressed, McCants slipped into the background as May and Felton became the most important parts of the team. This whole idea of team came alive when McCants grew so ill that he missed the final four regular-season games. In spite of his absence, Carolina ground out the four victories necessary to secure first place all by itself.
Landmark: Regular-Season Finish
UNC solidified its grip on the top spot with its biggest win of the regular season, a come-from-behind win against archrival Duke in Chapel Hill. The Tar Heels had lost at Duke (71-70) earlier, when they played one of their poorer games. Yet they had the ball with a chance to win, before turning it over as the final seconds expired.
That kind of resilience, so similar to what UNC displayed regularly during the incredibly successful Dean Smith era, began to reappear in those final games.
Felton failed with the ball in his hands on the final possession at Duke, but when he got another chance at Maryland, he drove off two screens, one by Jawad Williams and the other from May, to the basket for the winning shot. At the other end of the court, May secured the victory by blocking Maryland's final shot attempt. Manuel ensured it would be the final shot by chasing the ball down and grabbing it to allow the final seconds to expire.
So when Duke took a nine-point lead with three minutes left at the Dean Dome, Roy Williams told his team to just keep grinding. The players did it, forcing Duke turnovers and errant shots until Carolina finally took the lead and won the game.
"It means a lot," May said, "just because of how many times it's been done to us. We've lost so many close games like that (in the past). Last year we were up seven with three minutes to go and Duke came back to beat us. I'm finally glad to be on the other end of the stick, especially tonight. We needed it to win the championship outright. It feels good to have the championship be ours."
The three seniors now could leave Carolina with a substantial accomplishment to their credit.
"I feel real good," Manuel said. "The guys before, they talk about all the banners they have, regular-season champions, ACC champions. Now I feel like I'm a part of that. When kids come in now, I can show them I was a part of something in 2004-05.
"I really do (feel like a Carolina basketball player). This is what I expected coming in my freshman year. I'm telling you, there is one feeling you have when you're 8-20, and that's miserable. That is the only thing you think about. The 19-16 season, we had a winning record, but it was a so-so year. We still had that bad taste of 8-20 in our mouth."
May continued to establish his credentials as the best post player in the country. He scored 26 points and grabbed an unbelievable 24 rebounds against Duke and Shelden Williams, who later was named the national defensive player of the year.
"That is one of the remarkable performances of a kid," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "Twenty-six and 24 in the Duke-Carolina game? Come on. He is one of the best kids. I love Sean. He's a great, great player, and a great kid. He's got unbelievable hands, coupled with a great heart."
The rest of the nation would find out just how much heart before the season ended, too.
After Setbacks, More Rebounds
Before the glorious finishing run, however, Carolina hit another low. In the ACC Tournament, the Tar Heels had to come from behind to beat Clemson, and then they lost to Georgia Tech in the semifinals with a lackluster effort.
"We got fat and happy," May said. "We won the conference. Then when Clemson beat Maryland (in the first round of the tournament), we had a sigh of relief that we didn't have to play Maryland on their home floor.
"Clemson came out and shocked us. Tonight, I think we were prepared to play. The coaches had us prepared. The players just didn't get the job done. The good thing is we have a few days before the NCAA Tournament starts to go back and regroup and try to get this thing rolling again."
Rather than dwell on it, Carolina returned to Chapel Hill and went hard at it in practice. By the time the NCAA Tournament began in Charlotte, UNC had to regain its attitude and winning ways.
Just as they had done in Hawaii at the start of the season, the Tar Heels blistered their opponents. Carolina blew by Oakland 96-68 and Iowa State 92-65.
"We got our fire back," Felton said. "We played with more intensity than we played down in Washington (at the ACC Tournament). We knew that. We practiced before we came down to Charlotte. We just worked hard on defense, worked hard on everything and got our intensity and fire back into us."
Amazingly enough, the inconsistency that had emerged occasionally throughout the season re-emerged in the Sweet 16 against Villanova. UNC appeared out of sorts, and Carolina barely survived. McCants made a thrilling block on a three-point attempt to help the team advance, and Scott provided some important minutes with Felton in foul trouble.
The Tar Heels bounced back to play well and beat Wisconsin for a berth in the Final Four, but Roy Williams left Syracuse unhappy with his team's defensive performance. So as he had done early in the year, he removed the rims from the backboards and put the team through some rigorous defensive workouts.
Williams, May, Felton Earn Title
The work paid dividends at the Final Four, but not before inconsistency reared its head again in the semifinals.
Michigan State clearly outplayed UNC in the first half of their game, leading Williams to call a timeout near the end of the half. He blistered the team in the huddle. He did it some more in the locker room, and the team responded with a huge second-half effort.
Carolina scored better than 50 points in a half for the 17th time on the season and raced by the stunned Spartans 87-71.
"It's the Final Four," Williams said. "It's the biggest stage you can be in. Maybe guys go tiptoeing through the tulips. I don't think our guys were overconfident. I don't think they were prima donnas. I don't think they were big-timing anybody.
"I think Michigan State hit them right in the mouth. We staggered a little bit and didn't now how to react. I hate to put it in that vernacular, but maybe that explains it better than I've been doing. They were the aggressor, and we were not. And I don't think you can be the kind of team that can win at this level against these kinds of teams if you're on your heels. I don't care if there is tar there or whatever, you can't do that. I wanted us to be more aggressive in the second half."
So UNC moved on to the championship game. For Williams, this was his third Final Four in the last four seasons and his second time in the title game.
His experience showed. His team came out ready to play, racing to a 40-27 halftime lead. When Illinois fought back to tie the score at 65 and 70 in the second half, Williams stayed positive and calm.
His faith in Carolina's ability to perform as a team remained strong. He called a timeout and reassured the team that it would win the game.
"We came to the sideline," May said, "and Coach said, 'We're fine. Everybody look at me. Let's do this. We'll get a good shot, and we'll go down and get a stop.' You know, we believe in each other. We believe in Coach. That's what we did."
When the buzzer sounded, confetti filled the air as the Tar Heels all hugged one another and celebrated the best possible end to a magical season. Their faith in one another and their willingness to sacrifice individual statistics for the team had paid off in the way they all had hoped.
May continued his monstrous play, dominating the Illinois big men and earning the Most Outstanding Player award for his efforts. Felton again came up big, too, hitting four of five three-pointers, taking care of the ball, and coming up with a key steal in the final minute.
With that, the Tar Heels (33-4) were the national champions, just three years after finishing 8-20. It's a memory that will fill Carolina lore for many years to come.
"We're the class that came in and had the worst year in Carolina history," Scott said. "We're the same class that is leaving now with one of the best years ever."
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