It seems like the good old days for North Carolina, or at least much better than recent times.
The second-ranked Tar Heels are again atop the Atlantic Coast Conference, among the nation’s elite and united under Coach Roy Williams, who in less than two years has helped to heal the “Carolina Family” after the brief and stormy reign of former coach Matt Doherty.
North Carolina is positioned to win its first outright ACC title since Hall of Fame coach Dean Smith still worked at the Dean E. Smith Center, and reaching the Final Four in St. Louis appears to be an attainable goal for a talented and deep team that has finally committed to playing defense.
The Tar Heels have enjoyed the view after having quickly reverted to form, and Williams has led them back to a familiar place.
“The reason we’re so successful this year is because we’ve completely bought into what he’s saying,” standout junior center Sean May said. “He told us last year, ‘If you do what I tell you to do, you’ll be successful,’ and we’ve finally bought into that. Obviously, you can see the results.”
North Carolina, 23-3 overall, 11-2 in the ACC, leads sixth-ranked Wake Forest by one game with three to play, including at Maryland today. The Tar Heels’ final two games are at the 21,750-seat Smith Center -- Thursday against Florida State and next Sunday against seventh-ranked Duke.
They’re eager for the regular-season-ending rematch against the rival Blue Devils, who won the teams’ first meeting, 71-70, at Durham, N.C. North Carolina committed 23 turnovers and squandered a chance to win in the waning moments, having failed to take a shot after inbounding with 18 seconds remaining.
Santa Clara upset then-fourth-ranked North Carolina, playing without suspended junior point guard Raymond Felton, 77-66, in a season opener Nov. 19. In a matchup of teams then ranked third and fourth Jan. 15, No. 4 Wake Forest set an ACC record in making all 32 free throws -- two fewer than the NCAA mark -- in a 95-82 upset of North Carolina.
And that’s it for the blemishes in the Tar Heels’ first season of at least 20 victories since 2000-01. They’re determined to add many more wins to this season’s total.
“Needless to say, we had a chance to win the Duke game,” Williams said. “If we had played a little better and gotten some help from Wake, we could have won that one too, so we have played well.
“I’m not going to say that we have played really well, as well as we could have, but we’ve played well enough to have a chance even in the games that we’ve lost, with the possible exception of Santa Clara at the start of the season.
“We’ve been right there. We’ve had opportunities to win almost every game. So is this team good enough to get to the Final Four? Yes. We’re one of those teams that has a chance to win the whole thing.”
Although the rest of the ACC figured it wouldn’t take Williams long to rebuild at his alma mater, the project has seemingly been an overnight success. The foundation is commitment to defense and a balanced offense, and Williams has convinced the Tar Heels that selflessness is the key to reaching St. Louis.
“Playing defense ... that’s what separates us from other teams,” senior forward Jawad Williams said. “We have our weaknesses, but we always focus on defense, and we’re so athletic that we have guys who can make plays at any given time.”
The Tar Heels average a conference-leading 10.8 steals, force the most turnovers at 19.9 and have limited opponents to 39.6% field-goal shooting, second in the ACC. Opponents made more than 40% of their shots against the Tar Heels the previous three seasons, including 44.4% in 2003-04.
“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.”
And they’re faster on offense, playing at a pace most teams can’t match.
The Tar Heels’ up-tempo attack has produced a nation-leading average of 89.9 points. They’re also fifth in shooting at 50.6%.
“Our whole mantra is that we’re going to run every time,” Williams said, “and that you’re going to give in. You’re not going to run back every time.”
What most pleases Williams, however, is that no player dominates the offense. Five Tar Heels average double figures, with junior swingman Rashad McCants topping the group at 15.8 points.
May is second at 15.5 points and leads in rebounding at 10.3. Felton averages a team-high 30.5 minutes, 12 points and leads the ACC in assists at 7.1.
Then there’s Marvin Williams.
The 6-foot-9 freshman forward might have been an NBA lottery pick had he declared for the draft out of high school last year. He has provided a major boost off the bench with averages of 11.4 points and 6.6 rebounds.
“We’ve got some marvelous players,” Roy Williams said. “Now, I’m not so sure that I would agree that everybody is a 100% sure-fire lottery pick, because there is a perception that we have five Michael Jordans running around.
“But what the kids are really doing a nice job of is playing together much better. The chemistry is much better. That allows them to understand their deficiencies and help each other.”
North Carolina’s team-first approach is easily explained, May said.
“It’s all Coach Williams,” said May, whose father, Scott, was the 1976 NCAA player of the year for undefeated Indiana.
“He’s the best coach in the country at getting guys to utilize their talents, and the best at getting guys to understand their roles on a team. We have guys who can go to any other school and average 25.
“If it takes only for a guy to average 15 or 10 for us to win, then that’s what they’re going to do. They’re going to do it and get the job done because he says so.”
With McCants sidelined because of a stomach virus, senior reserve guard Melvin Scott started Tuesday against North Carolina State and scored 12 points, making four three-pointers, in an 81-71 victory at Raleigh.
“We have so many guys who are ready to step up whenever Coach calls on them,” Felton said. “Coach makes sure everybody knows their roles and is ready when he needs them. That’s the type of team we have this year.”
Williams inherited a team with deep emotional wounds.
Doherty, a starter on the Tar Heels’ 1982 national championship team, was selected Associated Press coach of the year in his first season (2000-01) for leading North Carolina to 26 victories and a share of the ACC regular-season title.
He followed longtime Smith assistant Bill Guthridge, who succeeded Smith -- the all-time Division I leader with 879 victories in 36 seasons at Chapel Hill -- and led North Carolina to two Final Fours in three seasons.
It appeared Doherty might have a long tenure as well, but the Tar Heels struggled (they went 8-20 in 2001-02) in his next two seasons as he clashed with players.
Williams had coached Doherty while having served as an assistant to Smith for 10 years, and Doherty was Williams’ assistant for seven years at Kansas, where Williams had become one of the game’s top coaches.
He compiled a record of 459-115 with four Final Four appearances in 17 seasons at Lawrence. After having led the Jayhawks to successive Final Fours, Williams returned to North Carolina on April 14, 2003.
The Tar Heels went 19-11 and finished fifth in the ACC at 8-8 in Williams’ first season. They returned to the NCAA tournament for the first time in three seasons and lost to Texas in the second round.
Rebuilding the players’ confidence in a coach was Williams’ greatest accomplishment last season.
“I had a guy say to me the other day, ‘Coach, your players trust you more than most college players trust their coaches, and they believe in what you’re telling them.’ That’s the greatest compliment I can get,” Williams said. “But they trust me not just because they wake up one morning and say, ‘I’m going to trust him today.’ They trust me because our relationship has made it possible for me to earn it.”
The bond between Williams and the Tar Heels is even stronger this season.
“It’s a blessing to be coached by Coach Williams,” freshman Williams said. “He’s such a great man to be around. He’s such a great teacher in the game of basketball and in life.”
Williams says he and Doherty, an analyst for College Sports TV, are close again after a rough patch when Williams accepted the North Carolina job. Doherty hopes to return to coaching and Williams plans to help him.
“Our relationship is one of friendship and respect,” Williams said. “But everything that happened is not going to die until these players leave, so it is hard. Matt will tell you that he made some mistakes and he would do some things differently, and there was a time period there where I thought some people hadn’t treated Matt the right way, so I thought I shouldn’t even” consider the job.
“Matt was hurt when I did decide to talk to them and take the job, which is only human nature. I just decided I couldn’t let what happens to someone else dictate my life plan. But there is friendship there and there is respect there. And there is some love there because I did help recruit him, coach him and he was my assistant.”
North Carolina last won an outright ACC championship in 1993 -- also the last time it won a national championship. The Tar Heels have not won an ACC tournament title since 1998.
“There have been a lot of questions about us for the last few years, and rightfully so, but now we have three games left to take control of what we want,” May said. “It’s not going to be easy, but these are must-win games for us if we want to accomplish the things we talked about at the beginning of the season, which is being the ACC champion and getting a high seed in the [NCAA] tournament. It’s there for us to take.”
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Under the Shadow
Ask Gene Bartow. Or Joe B. Hall. Or Dick Harp: It’s not easy following a college basketball coaching legend, whether it be, respectively, John Wooden, Adolph Rupp or Phog Allen. Sometimes success isn’t enough, because it never seems to be enough success to match the predecessor’s.
Such has been the case at North Carolina since Dean Smith retired in 1997. Roy Williams, a former Smith assistant, built his own legend at Kansas, but returning to his alma mater to coach was made easier by the fact that two other men coached the Tar Heels between his tenure and Smith’s.
A look at North Carolina over the last eight seasons (2004-05 records and standings through Saturday’s games):
*--* Season Overall ACC Place Postseason
UNDER BILL GUTHRIDGE 1997-98 34-4 13-3 2 Lost to Utah in NCAA national semifinals 1998-99 24-10 10-6 3 Lost to Weber State in NCAA first round 1999-2000 22-14 9-7 T-3 Lost to Florida in NCAA national semifinals UNDER MATT DOHERTY 2000-01 26-7 13-3 T-1 Lost to Penn State in NCAA second round 2001-02 8-20 4-12 T-7 Did not qualify for postseason play 2002-03 19-16 6-10 T-6 Lost to Georgetown in third round of NIT UNDER ROY WILLIAMS 2003-04 19-11 8-8 5 Lost to Texas in NCAA second round 2004-05 23-3 11-2 1 To be determined