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Williams Has Team Hearing, Believing

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

  January 19, 2004 CHAPEL HILL — Over the last three seasons, North Carolina basketball came to represent many not-so-nice things, at least one of them undeniable: When the players don't respect their coach, it doesn't really matter how good he is or what he has to say. The 2003-04 Tar Heels respect Roy Williams. Given his background, they'd be crazy not to, but many UNC fans nevertheless weren't sure what to expect from a group that had been portrayed elsewhere (inaccurately) as a bunch of selfish, manipulative crybabies. Give the Heels this: They're listening now, and good things are happening in Chapel Hill. Carolina remains an imperfect team, but gone are the Bill Murray-style Groundhog Days, when the Heels make the same mistakes over and over for months at a time. As demanded by Williams, this year's team gradually is learning to run with a purpose, take better shots, defend with more intensity, play with more intelligence, win and lose with more class and approach the game in a more unselfish manner. It's not that there haven't been worrisome moments. Adversity arrived quickly for this bunch, in the form of losses to Wake Forest, Kentucky and Maryland. Williams was no less demanding behind the scenes than his predecessor, and he even publicly complained about his team's poor defense, selfish play and passive approach to the game. Meanwhile, when star swingman Rashad McCants (and his father) again began showing signs of unhappiness, many fans wondered if Carolina had yet another set of problems behind the scenes. This time, though, Williams was there to nip any potential troubles in the bud. At least one parent was upset about playing time issues, but nobody complained about broken promises or suggested that an egocentric, profane, mean-spirited and/or incompetent coach was the root of the problem. (Those complaints were far more common last season than most fans will ever know.) Some players grew weary of seeing themselves criticized by Williams and others in print, but the coach soon rushed to their defense in a very public fashion. “I know what kind of kids we have,” Williams said. “I know the problems they have; they know the problems we have. I can go in that locker room right now and look at every kid and tell them that I love them. I don't have any problem saying that whatsoever.” Matt Doherty often said those kinds of things in times of crisis, too, and in his own way he probably meant them. Problem was, very few of the UNC players believed him when he said it. They believe Williams, and that makes all the difference in the world. In mid-January, even after the big win over top-ranked Connecticut, Williams knew his team still had plenty of room for improvement. Importantly, his players agreed. One example: The Tar Heels are not a team of great shooters, and their middle-of-the-road three-point percentage (34.6) reflected that fact. Based on their performance in practice, only four players are permitted to take more than the occasional three-pointer, and there are many possessions when only two of them are on the floor at the same time. Melvin Scott (38 percent) and Jawad Williams (12-25; 48 percent) are shooting well from long range, but McCants (36.1) has been very streaky and Raymond Felton (25) consistently poor. Also: Unlike the other guys, Williams needs considerably more time to get off his shot, so in a late-game situation when the defense knows UNC needs a three, Williams is a factor only if his defender collapses into the lane. The biggest concern for the coaching staff, though, remained at the defensive end of the floor. The worry wasn't so much that Carolina ranked last in the ACC in scoring defense. (The Heels are allowing more than 75 points per game, compared to less than 60 for several league teams.) That's considered in part a byproduct of the lightning-fast style that has the team ranked among the national leaders in scoring offense. Instead, the biggest concern rested with poor execution, especially in the half-court defense, and the kinds of mental mistakes that are a perfect recipe for an early NCAA Tournament exit. In mid-January, the Tar Heels ranked last in the ACC in field goal percentage defense (about 44 percent), at a time when most of the league's teams were under 38 percent. That's a very significant statistical difference, one the coaching staff has been quick to mention in recent weeks. Granted, UNC is in the midst of playing one of the nation's toughest schedules — a heavier sprinkling of Podunk States would make the numbers look better — but a bunch of crucial, avoidable breakdowns at the defensive end contributed directly to losses to Wake Forest, Kentucky and Maryland. When asked in early January what specific improvements his team needed to make on defense, Williams replied: “Everything.” “I'm not trying to be trivial with you, but it is everything,” Williams said. “We are not a very good defensive team. We are getting better, we are trying, but you have got to take away the easy things for the other team and make them do things that they don't practice. Make them do things that are a little more difficult. We don't deny. We don't box out. We don't beat our guy to the spot. I mean, it is everything. … “I've said it many times. You can't be a great team without being able to play great defense. You don't have to be perfect. But you always have to practice with purpose, you always have to play with great effort, you always have to be willing to pay attention to the details, you always have to make defense a priority. If you don't do those things, you won't be successful at the level we want to be successful.” Manuel, Noel Need Defensive Help Williams knows he doesn't have many outstanding one-on-one defenders on his roster, but that's not unusual for a team that was recruited and coached in the Dean Smith tradition. Over the last four decades, the Tar Heels only rarely have made it a priority to pursue defensive specialists from the high school ranks. Instead, they have loaded up more on superb ball-handlers, pure shooters, slashing wing players, and big men with good hands and good feet, then preached reliable team defense as part of the Carolina tradition. Sometimes, of course, prospects with the above qualities also were strong defenders or became so during their college careers. Smith's national championship team in 1993 was a good example. Long-armed, spider-like point guard Derrick Phelps and George Lynch, an amazingly strong and quick 6-7 athlete at power forward, were awesome individual defenders. But the rest of the group offered nothing extraordinary in that regard. Two other starters, shooter Donald Williams and slasher Brian Reese, had all kinds of defensive problems during their UNC careers. Centers Eric Montross and Kevin Salvadori lacked quickness, but Montross contributed lots of strength and attitude, and Salvadori developed into an intimidating shotblocker in a limited role off the bench. Henrik Rodl and Pat Sullivan didn't have quick hands or great feet, but they were almost always in the right place at the right time. UNC's 2004 team — with no Phelps, no Lynch and no seven-footers — probably doesn't have a collection of talent that can match the 1993 bunch's defensive consistency, but the Tar Heels will have to improve if they want to become serious national contenders. Of the seven rotation players on this year's team, only two generally are considered particularly strong defenders, and both (Jackie Manuel and David Noel) usually come off the bench. Felton and May are OK, although Felton still allows his man too much dribble penetration and May (bulky but only 6-8) often encounters matchup problems, either with a slender post player who's too quick for him (see Maryland's Jamar Smith) or a more traditional center (see UConn's Emeka Okafor) who's simply beyond his reach. Williams is a smart, long-armed defender who sometimes has been asked to clamp down on an opposing wing scorer, but he still gets pushed around in the post. McCants and Scott, despite their occasional moments of inspiration, are explosive offensive players who regularly are exposed as weak links at the other end of the floor. After the Georgia Tech victory, Williams made it a point to single out McCants for his surprisingly strong defensive effort: “I told him it was the best defense he's ever dreamed, much less played. I thought he was big for us.” The coach is likely to continue to hammer the defensive theme the rest of the way. Like every other team in America, UNC has plenty of imperfections. Williams would love to have another point guard and another post player at his disposal, but there's no waiver wire in college basketball. Better defense, on the other hand, remains within the Heels' grasp. And Williams still wants improvement from everyone on the roster, from the unpredictable McCants to the usually impressive and sometimes suffocating Manuel. “I would say Jackie is a good defender right now,” Williams said. “He has the potential to be a great defender. He has given himself completely to this team and bought into what we as coaches are trying to teach, and because of that he's getting closer every day. Because of his attitude, with more experience and attention to detail, he'll get there.” Under Williams, perhaps UNC will, too.