May 24, 2005
CHAPEL HILL - In his 17 seasons as a head coach, including the last two at his alma mater, North Carolina's Roy Williams has become pretty good (or better) at just about every task that's a requirement of his profession.
Even before winning the national championship, Williams scored well in everything from Xs-and-Os (in ways most fans will never understand) to recruiting (nobody works harder), player relations (see last two seasons), media relations (not perfect but good enough), personal relations (parents and coaches love him), staff-building (plenty of expertise, although another ace recruiter would be nice), fan relations (most UNC supporters worshipped him pre-NCAA title), following the rules, etc.
Williams' next challenge, like it or not, is one that's more important for him to master than for just about any other coach in America: understanding the impact of the NBA draft in modern college basketball, and not allowing it to destroy his program. It's a class for which there are no teachers, no textbook and few easy answers. Meanwhile, nobody is sure how a proposed age limit of 20 will (or won't) come into play, possibly as early as next summer.
Nobody raised the issue during the recent departures of UNC underclassmen Raymond Felton, Sean May, Rashad McCants and Marvin Williams for the NBA, but sources told the Sports Journal that Roy Williams initially was "surprised" to lose all four players this year. While that probably sounds ridiculous to most fans, it's very easy to forget how various individuals' views on early entry can change in a matter of months or even weeks. It's also hard to appreciate how the daily grind of coaching and recruiting actually allows coaches little time to contemplate many what-if scenarios during the season.
The UNC coaches weren't at all surprised to lose McCants, who all but guaranteed them over the winter that his junior year would be his last in Chapel Hill. Williams, who often praised McCants' growth over the past two seasons but also viewed him as a difficult variable at times, saw that decision coming from a mile away.
Meanwhile, the situations with Felton, May and Williams weren't as simple as they probably looked. First, the national championship changed everything; the stock of Felton and May in particular went through the roof because of their amazing, gutty performances in the NCAA Tournament. Second, while nobody said so publicly, Felton's decision played an enormous role in the decisions of May and Williams.
Sources told the Sports Journal that May "almost definitely" would have returned to UNC for his senior season and that Williams "would've seriously considered it" if Felton had decided to remain in Chapel Hill for 2005-06. May talked openly last summer about his strong desire to be a four-year college player, and Williams told the Carolina coaches upon signing with the Tar Heels that he planned and expected to be a two-year guy.
Upon the decision of Felton, whose mother is ill and whose father risked his financial security last season by traveling to see many of his son's games, the outlook for Williams and especially May changed dramatically. Felton told his teammates of his decision almost two weeks before the trio's press conference. With that, they had a lot to consider.
Without Felton, who would get the big men the ball? Shaky sophomore Quentin Thomas, the leading candidate to take Felton's spot? A freshman? If Felton left, and Williams followed because of his extremely high (top-three) draft projection, would May be willing to be the only returnee among the Heels' top seven scorers? Would the team be any good? Might May hurt his stock by coming back without the others, costing himself millions of dollars along the way?
A year ago on the recruiting trail, Williams told incoming 6-9 forward Tyler Hansbrough that the coach would have at least one or two quality big men on hand at all times so that Hansbrough wouldn't be stuck playing center all the time in Chapel Hill. Surely, at the time, Williams expected May and/or Williams to fill that role through Hansbrough's freshman year.
Now, after UNC missed 6-8 senior spring target Uche Echefu, Hansbrough projects as the Heels' starting center by default in 2005-06. His only help in the low post now will have to come from 6-6 senior forward David Noel, little-used 6-9 senior forward Byron Sanders and injury-prone 6-11 senior center Damion Grant. That couldn't possibly have been what Williams or Hansbrough had in mind a year ago.
More Trouble With 2006 Class?
How can a coach possibly prepare for such unpredictable scenarios? Again, there are few easy answers.
Among the many complicating factors is the NCAA's 13-scholarship limit. If Williams knew for sure as early as last summer that all four of his talented underclassmen would leave for the 2005 draft, he could have added more than three players to Hansbrough's class. Of course, it doesn't work that way, and one wrong guess can leave a coach in a precarious position.
What if Williams had signed an eight-man class this year? With the benefit of a crystal ball, everything would've worked out OK; UNC would've had 13 players on scholarship next season. But what if Williams had signed eight last November, but something happened that led Felton and/or May and/or Williams to return to Chapel Hill? In the worst-case scenario, Williams would have had 16 players for 13 scholarships. Try explaining that to all of the kids, parents and high school coaches you bonded with on the recruiting trail.
Again with the Class of 2006, Williams will be walking a tightrope that brings with it both excitement and fear. The Tar Heels' first two commitments, top-100 swingman William Graves and top-10 point guard Tywon Lawson, are not threats to go straight to the NBA. But what about Pennsylvania guard Wayne Ellington or Oak Hill Academy forward Kevin Durant, two top-five prospects the Heels are expected to add in coming weeks? What about the top-25 big men - they need at least two - from the rising senior class?
It's possible that the UNC coaches could sign the No. 1 or No. 2 class in America in November, then have to spend the entire spring biting their nails over which players are actually going to show up on campus.
It could happen, and Williams knows it. At this point, it's hard to imagine how anything could surprise him anymore.