March 1, 2005
CHAPEL HILL It's still too early to hand out any coach of the year awards, but in the 52-year history of ACC basketball there can't be many more dramatic two-year turnarounds than what second-year North Carolina coach Roy Williams has orchestrated with the Tar Heels.
No players in Carolina basketball history have been through what seniors Jawad Williams, Jackie Manuel and Melvin Scott have experienced. They were 8-20 as freshmen under coach Matt Doherty in 2001-02, in a season that represented the worst of UNC hoops in far more ways than the obvious. Under Williams, the same three players have a legitimate chance to complete their careers in the manner they dreamed about when they first arrived in Chapel Hill.
"There are no limits for this team," Jawad Williams said. "We have the right coach. We have the right players. We have the right attitude. Everybody is on the same page now. Everybody just wants to win. Everything else is in the past, out the window."
Under Roy Williams, gradually, a selfish team has become unselfish. Players with once-reckless shooting tendencies have altered their habits and watched their shot and point totals go down without much complaint. Stubborn players have listened to suggestions and made changes to their games. Poorly conditioned players have reshaped their bodies. Over time, mental toughness has become more of an ally than a question mark.
"One of the greatest compliments we can get as coaches, and I've heard this (recently), is that it's obvious that the players trust us and believe in what we're saying," Williams said. "But that trust didn't just show up one day. It has taken time, and it has taken effort from all sides. We've done this together. They trust me because our relationship has made it possible for me to earn that trust."
One of the most startling on-court changes in the Tar Heels has been their approach to defense. Mentally and physically, they are a different team at that end of the court, as the statistics show. Through late February, the Heels were averaging ACC bests of 10.8 steals and 19.9 forced turnovers per game, and they were limiting foes to 39.6 percent shooting from the field. Over the last three seasons combined, opponents hit about 44 percent of their field goal attempts versus UNC.
Among Carolina's eight rotation players, only one (Scott) is a weak defender. Manuel, point guard Raymond Felton and forward David Noel have been consistently outstanding this season, which in the cases of Manuel and Noel has made up for their offensive limitations. Guard Rashad McCants shows flashes of greatness but remains inconsistent at the defensive end. Jawad Williams and freshman forward Marvin Williams aren't great, but they're very long and quick enough to present problems. Center Sean May lacks the leap and long arms to be a top shotblocker, but he averages about one block per game and anticipates help situations much better than in previous seasons.
Coaches around the ACC often have mentioned UNC's defensive improvement as the biggest change in the team since last season. Wake Forest's Skip Prosser said this year's Tar Heels remind him of a Williams-coached Kansas team he faced in 2002, when the Jayhawks finished 33-4 and advanced to the Final Four. Almost every coach also mentions an elevated intensity level when speaking of UNC this season.
"It starts with Raymond Felton," N.C. State coach Herb Sendek said. "He works so hard and tries to get a deflection all the time. He's just relentless on the basketball, and then it kind of carries through the ranks."
"I've continually talked to the kids about getting better defensively, and they're really trying," Williams said. "We still have a ways to go, in my opinion, but we're far better defensively this year than we were last year."
Also Special: Threes, Rebounding
Three-point shooting: Only once (1994-95) in the last 16 seasons has a UNC team shot better than 40 percent from three-point range, and these Tar Heels have a chance to finish higher than that lofty threshold. Through 26 games, they were at 40.8 percent overall and 39.3 percent in ACC play, and both marks led the conference.
Felton's dramatic improvement from long range has been one of the most impressive self-help stories of the entire ACC campaign. Soon after arriving from Kansas in 2003, Williams approached Felton about getting him to change the (ugly) form on his jump shot, but the player insisted that additional practice with his old form would produce better results. After Felton converted just 31.2 percent from long range in 2003-04, he reconsidered. The point guard's new-and-improved mechanics, which have his right elbow tucked in a more traditional shooting position (rather than a "chicken wing") and his release point in front of his face (rather than on the left side), helped him to a league-leading 46 percent through late February.
Equally important for the Tar Heels is the fact that, should they find themselves down by a dangerous margin late in a postseason game or have a possession where they must have a three-point shot, opposing defenses won't be able to focus entirely on one or two men.
In addition to Felton, Marvin Williams (48.0 percent on just 25 attempts), Jawad Williams (40.3) and McCants (39.7) have a chance to finish at or above the 40-percent mark, and Scott (36.5) isn't far behind. Only one UNC team (1986-87) in history has ever had even three regulars shoot 40 percent or better from three-point range in the same season, and any of the five above-mentioned current regulars would feel comfortable taking an open three-pointer at a crucial time in March.
UNC's regular-season losses at Wake Forest and at Duke are perhaps best remembered for the statistical oddity in which the Demon Deacons
(32-of-32; 100 percent) and the Blue Devils (21-of-22; 95.5) were almost perfect from the free throw line. But they also represented two of the only games this season in which the Tar Heels' accuracy from long range vanished. The Heels hit just seven of 25 (28 percent) three-point attempts against Wake and only three of 14 (21.4) versus Duke.
Rebounding: It probably would be an exaggeration to call UNC a "great" rebounding team every time May sits, the defensive board is an adventure but the team's gradual improvement on the glass marks another stark contrast from the Doherty era.
The Tar Heels lead the ACC in rebounding margin, a whopping 10.5 per game (40.9-30.4) in league games, thanks mainly to the improvement of May, the arrival of freshman Williams and the rebound-by-committee mindset of everyone else. The Heels were out-rebounded during the last two seasons under Doherty, then improved to plus-four in Williams' first year.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about UNC's elevated board work is that the coaching staff has inspired this development despite the fact that Jawad Williams continues to play more like a wing forward than a power forward. A long and lean
6-9, Williams still lacks the leap and/or polish to score in the post against stronger opponents, and he lacks the strength and/or nastiness to be a force on the boards. He helps in other ways, but he's no George Lynch (see 1993 title team) in the paint, and that's something this group needed.
Instead, May and Marvin Williams have carried the load, and Felton, Manuel and Noel have provided some valuable help. Extremely powerful and athletic at 6-6, Noel plays only 16 minutes a game, averaging 4.3 points and 2.5 rebounds. He may be the third-best rebounder on the team, but he's so versatile that he spends much of his time guarding players away from the basket.
Along with Felton, May has been one of the Tar Heels' inspiring stories of personal dedication. He dramatically improved his conditioning last summer, when he represented the United States in international competition on an undefeated Kelvin Sampson-coached team that emphasized toughness, defense and rebounding. May later shared with Chris Paul of Wake Forest the USA Basketball player of the year honor, won previously by Tim Duncan, Reggie Miller, Alonzo Mourning, Gary Payton, Elton Brand, etc.
May's upgraded performance, improved stamina and invaluable leadership he's the guy who asked Williams in the preseason to direct all harsh criticism through him, if necessary for purposes of team morale have been stunning. May has a chance to finish the season averaging a double-double in points (15.5) and rebounds (10.3), something only one other UNC player (Antawn Jamison) has done in the past 29 years, and May is (like Felton) a leading candidate for first-team All-ACC honors.