February 7, 2006
CHAPEL HILL -- Facing a whole different set of challenges than he saw during his first two seasons at North Carolina, coach Roy Williams seems to be enjoying himself as he helps his team overcome a variety of significant obstacles, one day at a time.
Inexperience? The Tar Heels have leaned heavily on senior forward David Noel, junior forward Reyshawn Terry and even junior wing guard Wes Miller. The three starters were brand-new to the spotlight and their 2005-06 roles, but they already had two full years of Williams' system under their belts coming into this season.
In all three cases, the results were far more good than bad during the Heels' surprisingly strong (14-5, 5-3 ACC) start. Noel, the team's emotional leader, has been a strong two-way performer while playing a team-high 33.4 minutes per game. Terry has emerged as the most reliable scorer outside the post. Miller has provided confidence, energy, defense and superb three-point shooting for a team in desperate need of all four things.
Youth? To varying degrees, freshmen Tyler Hansbrough, Bobby Frasor, Danny Green and Marcus Ginyard have approached or exceeded expectations. Williams obviously sought out qualities such as coachability, mental toughness and high basketball IQs on the recruiting trail, because as a group the foursome has more impressive intangibles than pure hoop skills.
Hansbrough, who turned 20 in November, is the best player on the UNC roster and one of the best in the ACC. He has made his first-year adjustments perhaps as well as any player in league history. Incredibly strong mentally, physically and emotionally, he's on track to become the conference's first first-team All-ACC freshman since Antawn Jamison (UNC) and Stephon Marbury (Georgia Tech) in 1996.
Defense? Check. Effort? Check. Attitude? Check. Teamwork? Check. Fast pace? Check. Poise? Check. Intelligence? Check. The Tar Heels aren't a great team, and they probably won't be one this season, but they're giving themselves a chance to win just about every time out.
The next major challenge for Williams and his assistants is the team's serious problem with turnovers. Through eight ACC games, the Tar Heels averaged a league-worst 20.2 miscues, which is an extremely difficult way to win.
Frasor and shaky backup point guard Quentin Thomas were part of the problem, but the main culprits were Noel, Terry and Hansbrough. Neither Noel nor Terry is a natural as a dribbler or passer, and Hansbrough has been the victim of overwhelming double- and triple-teams in the post. The turnovers mostly occur in the team's choppy half-court offense, and they often lead to Williams' biggest no-no, easy baskets the other way.
There are no obvious solutions on a roster where Frasor -- a combo guard by any definition -- is by far the most reliable ball-handler. Of course, similar challenges haven't prevented Williams from making the Tar Heels one of the biggest surprises of the season.
RELATIONSHIPS LIFTED BUNTING CLASS
It was a good sign for UNC coach John Bunting when he landed what some analysts considered a top-25 recruiting class. How he did it was an even better sign for the long-term future of Carolina football.
By most accounts, the Tar Heels signed nine of the 20 top-ranked seniors in North Carolina, a number rarely seen at any in-state school, even during the bountiful Mack Brown days in Chapel Hill. In stark contrast, archrival N.C. State by some accounts signed only one of the top 30 seniors, another number that hasn't been seen very often (if ever) for either of the state's two major public-school programs.
It's been said many times that recruiting is primarily about relationships. That certainly proved to be the case for Carolina again this year, when the Tar Heels secured a 28-man group that included 16 signees from North Carolina high schools and another prospect who played in the state before spending 2005-06 at a Virginia prep school.
Bunting obviously has developed strong ties with many of the state's top high school coaches, and some of those connections paid off directly this year. Thanks to the work of recruiting coordinator Brad Lawing (also the Tar Heels' defensive ends coach) and director of high school relations Ken Browning (defensive tackles), UNC also did an outstanding job of building early bridges with the state's top prospects. Most accelerated their relationships with Carolina by attending one or more of its summer camps in recent years.
Included in UNC's impressive 2006 group of in-state signees were three consensus All-Americans: defensive tackle Aleric Mullins, wide receiver Hakeem Nicks and wide receiver Deunta Williams. If not for the relationships factor, each of the three easily could have ended up at another ACC, Big 12, Big Ten or SEC program.
Mullins, a Missouri native, attends East Wake High near Raleigh. Several East Wake staff members love Bunting, even though the career of East Wake product Terry Hunter (indefinite suspension) hasn't gone as planned. Meanwhile, at least one coach there is part of a significant group of in-state coaches who aren't at all enamored with N.C. State's Chuck Amato, who is perceived by some as both an abrasive, arrogant personality and someone who has a lack of respect for North Carolina high school football.
Throughout the fall and winter, Mullins leaned toward Auburn or Tennessee, but he also took numerous unofficial visits to Carolina, and he gradually developed relationships with Bunting, Browning and some UNC players. (The Wolfpack was eliminated early.) On the final recruiting weekend, Mullins finally accepted a long-standing offer to take an official visit to Chapel Hill. On Jan. 31, still leaning toward Auburn, he had a long-hours brain session with some East Wake coaches. On Feb. 1, he sent his letter of intent to the Tar Heels.
Nicks' story was more amazing. He didn't even start as a junior, so nobody knew anything about him last spring, but his coach at Independence High in Charlotte alerted UNC's staff to what he saw as an extremely promising prospect. Carolina invited Nicks to its camp. He attended, and he soon committed. He later raised eyebrows with his summer combine performances, then an absolutely phenomenal senior season that ended with him as the MVP of the state championship game, but by then it was too late for everyone else.
The coach who helped UNC with Nicks? That would be Duke graduate Tom Knotts, a long-time legend of North Carolina high school football who served as the Blue Devils' quarterbacks coach in 2004, before returning to the prep ranks. Knotts was infamous in Chapel Hill during the Brown era, when the Tar Heels rarely landed their top targets from Knotts' program (then West Charlotte) or anywhere else in the Charlotte area. In stark contrast, Knotts has an excellent relationship with Bunting.
Williams, a charismatic young man who became a key recruiter for the Tar Heels after making an early commitment last summer, originally planned to attend N.C. State. Why? He had a great relationship there as a junior, with then-Wolfpack assistant Doc Holliday. When Holliday left the Pack last year to take a job at Florida, Williams began to look elsewhere.
That's when the Tar Heels stepped into the void. Soon enough, Williams developed strong bonds with Lawing (his lead recruiter), Bunting, receivers coach Dave Brock (his likely position coach) and numerous UNC players. Williams also took it upon himself to get to know other Carolina commitments, and he talked up the Heels every time he bumped into another UNC target at a combine, on a visit or at an all-star event.
Relationships? For most people, that means Valentine's Day in mid-February. The UNC football program just decided to celebrate the concept about two weeks early this year.