February 14, 2005 CHAPEL HILL When Roy Williams returned to Chapel Hill, he discovered a basketball program that had lost its sense of invincibility. The Tar Heels didn't win every game under Dean Smith, just the overwhelming majority of them. One of the many great things they developed under Smith was a sense that they would find a way to win until time ran out and they were proven wrong. Even then, they would simply argue that time had expired on them. Given a few more moments, the outcome might have been different.
There certainly was no such as thing as intimidation or visible nerves. Carolina feared no team, particularly not Duke, regardless of where the Tar Heels ran into the Blue Devils.
After Smith retired in 1997, this sense of confidence began to erode gradually, along with the talent base on which Smith had constructed his victory machine. The comeback victories and last-minute heroics became tales of legend, not contemporary performances.
Then when the program fell to 8-20 in 2001-02, it was as if all of the confidence and with it the overall sense of what Carolina basketball represented had been flushed from the system. The Tar Heels didn't have enough confidence to beat Davidson or Hampton that year, and since then the scars of the losses have remained with the players who have tried to revamp this once-proud program.
While the talent base has improved substantially, Carolina's recent loss at Duke showed that the mental part of Williams' rebuilding project still has some distance to go. There's absolutely no reason for anyone in the UNC camp to panic, not after a one-point loss on the road to a top-five opponent, but there were some warning signs.
"I am very angry at myself," junior Rashad McCants said. "I was overly nervous about the game. Players shouldn't be nervous, but I'm human. I think everybody on this team was nervous, especially the first five minutes. I just didn't show up to play tonight. I missed a lot of open shots."
He went three-of-13, to be exact.
So there you have it. This is perhaps the final wall Williams still must scale. Although the coach was able to push his team until it finally had a shot to win at the end, the Tar Heels did not play with the same sense that they would find a way to win. It appeared more hopeful than determined.
The difference between the two teams showed in the body language of the players during their first meeting of the season, which Duke won 71-70. Even when J.J. Redick fired an air ball with 19 seconds left to give UNC a chance to win on the game's final possession, the Blue Devils showed more poise and confidence in their defense than Carolina did in its offense. Doubt spread across the Tar Heels' faces in the second half as if it were written in neon, as they fell behind by eight points with four minutes left in the game.
Just as in a loss at Wake Forest, the Heels started to feel sorry for themselves as the game progressed. They didn't whine as much outwardly about the refs, but they obviously felt the same sense of injustice, even though the statistics did not match their arguments.
"It's hard to get a lot of fouls at Duke," McCants said. "They got away with a lot of things. Free throws are a big thing. DeMarcus Nelson shot 39 percent coming into this game, and he hit four out of four. I'm not going to say we kept fouling, but they kept shooting free throws. When you're trying to play great defense for 35 seconds every time and end up with a foul, it takes a lot out of the team. It takes a lot of energy out of the players. It takes a lot of confidence out of us, seeing that we are trying to work so hard against such a great team."
Unfortunately, that was simply a worn excuse. UNC shot 23 free throws to 22 for Duke. The Blue Devils made 21, compared to 17 for UNC.
No, what happened in that game didn't have anything to do with the refs. It had everything to do with Carolina's inability to play a half-court game and its own lack of supreme confidence.
"(The turnovers) had to do with the fact that they had to run a lot more half-court offense," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "You're not going to force those turnovers if they're running their break and secondary break."
In other words, dictate the tempo, and UNC may self-destruct with its inability to handle the ball securely. What's interesting is how obvious this potential problem seemed even before the Duke game began.
Poor ball security has been one of the few weaknesses for this Carolina team all season. The large number of turnovers does not occur every night out, just when UNC runs into a determined half-court defense, or when the Tar Heels get sloppy in a blowout victory.
But Williams and point guard Raymond Felton brushed aside questions of possible ball-handling issues in the days preceding the game. Krzyzewski certainly saw the weakness and exploited it.
Nevertheless, the most interesting part of the whole thing was that Carolina had an opportunity to win the game on the final possession. But Felton made a bad split-second decision, Duke anticipated very well defensively, and UNC didn't get a shot off.
"We still had a chance to win the game," McCants said. "We played so bad. It was the worst game I've ever seen, ever, and we still had a chance to win. That speaks very highly of our team and our talent, that we played the worst basketball that we could ever play, even worse than Santa Clara, and we still had a chance to win the game."
Now the question is how much more can and will this Carolina team grow in its mental toughness and ability to play with poise in hostile environments. It didn't happen at Wake Forest. It didn't happen at Cameron.
The NCAA Tournament is not going to be played at the Dean Dome, and few teams past first-round opponents are going to let the Tar Heels run as much as they would like.
Half-court basketball evolves into the main fare in the postseason. The competition also will be fierce, so Carolina likely is going to find itself in some tough situations early in the ACC Tournament and the NCAA Tournament. How much confidence the Tar Heels can play with in the toughest moments remains to be seen.
Maybe Carolina's true confidence this year will not be what it's going to be during the next few seasons. That's after the players who have lost so many games in this uniform graduate and give way to the kids who once again will win enough on a regular basis to develop an ultimate belief in Williams and themselves.
Then again, maybe not. Given another chance to make a statement on the road, the Tar Heels overcame some difficult moments at Connecticut on Feb. 13 and won in impressive fashion. Confidence remains an issue for the Heels, but it's getting better.
Williams' NBA Factor Explodes
One of the key questions on the minds of Carolina fans since Marvin Williams decided last summer to attend UNC and not enter the NBA draft as a high school senior is whether he would last more than one season.
That question has been even more prevalent since everyone has seen the big fellow and how much talent he has. He is equally at ease shooting three-pointers or dunking over opposing big men. He plays defense effectively for a freshman, and his large, sure hands capture any rebound that bounces near him.
But will he be around to play a second season as a Tar Heel?
The funny thing that is even junior center Sean May is wondering. Twice in two weeks, May has made allusions to Williams and how he hopes he will get to play with the kid from Seattle next year.
"I hope I get at least 30 more games with him," May said.
May already has said definitively that he will return, and it's hard to see him changing his mind. He enjoys college basketball and understands his personal development at this point. His recent performances against Duke and Connecticut were outstanding.
Felton or McCants, who can say? In some ways, it's a minor miracle that both are still in school, given the rush for money that goes on these days.
And don't bother talking about "being ready." Being ready for the next level stopped being a requirement the minute the owners and general managers started throwing paychecks at prep players as if it were Monopoly money.
The one player who can say for sure he would go among the first few picks is Williams. Whether that is enough to send him packing, May and the rest of us probably are going to have to wait until spring to find out.