“Our break is pretty simple,” Williams said. Then he went on to detail how it worked: Sean May gets the rebound and outlets to Raymond Felton, who blows up the court as fast as he can. Felton drives into the lane, and if the defense collapses on him he finds Rashad McCants open in the corner for a jumper. If the defense stays home, Felton is free to go to the basket or pull up for a high percentage shot.
The story reveals how Williams has become one of the most successful coaches in the history of college basketball. For many of his 25 years as a head coach – and the 10 he spent as an assistant to Dean Smith – Williams has worked with better players than the opposition had. He has coached at two of the most legendary basketball schools, and he became a great recruiter at Kansas and Carolina.
When asked once what his biggest needs were as a coach, he said a private jet at his disposal. Ol’ Roy prides himself on out-working the competition. If Mike Krzyzewski was making five visits to see Harrison Barnes in Ames, Iowa, Williams wanted to be there 10 times. In Barnes’ case, it worked.
When Williams escaped the cancer scare last summer against overwhelming odds, the doctors told him he was a lucky man. Williams said he knew that because he has lived a charmed life. The poor kid from outside of Asheville, the first in his family to go to college, would have been content following in the footsteps of his high school coach, Buddy Baldwin, and made a nice life for himself and his family coaching in western North Carolina.
At Carolina, he inherited a national championship-caliber roster that only needed to be taught how to play together and get tougher. It took two years, but by his second season the Tar Heels were beating mighty Duke, finishing first in the ACC and stripping the nets in St. Louis. The following season came a once-in-a-lifetime player named Tyler Hansbrough, around whom Roy built a second NCAA title team. Three other years at UNC, his Tar Heels fell one game short of reaching the Final Four.
So, for Roy Williams, the formula is as simple as diagramming the Carolina fast break at a coaching clinic. Work your tail off and recruit the best players to two of the best basketball schools in the country. That’s really all he has had to do; with better players most of the time, Williams could merely mimic what he learned from Smith and some of the other coaches he admittedly has copied from.
A great recruiter, yes. An innovator, most certainly no. He admits to being stubborn as all get-out, and some of the things his Tar Heels do on the court, they have been doing for much of the last 50 years, beginning with Smith’s own ascension to royalty. But with more underclassmen leaving early, and some unexpectedly, for the NBA, the game is changing for Roy Williams.
The current season is the third when he has been caught short on the superior talent he usually has by out-recruiting most of the competition. Come to Carolina, where we’ve won for years and will continue to win, play on national TV 25 times each season and make the NCAA Tournament with as good a chance as any school to reach the Final Four and maybe win it all.
If Hansbrough hadn’t turned out to be all-world as a freshman, the 2006 team might have struggled like the 2010 team that also lost its top five or six players to graduation and/or the NBA draft. And after the rebuilt 2012 team, good enough to challenge Kentucky for the national championship before four key injuries depleted the lineup, lost four more starters, the current Tar Heels are again searching for success and an identity.
But recent indications are that ol’ Roy may be getting less stubborn with age. In what was a must-win at Florida State Saturday, the underdog Tar Heels did some things they hadn’t all season – besides playing much, much harder on both ends of the floor. They seemed less determined to dump the ball inside to a low-post game that isn’t there yet. They spread the court with the kind of spacing Duke has adopted in recent years. And they even ran players off ball screens set by teammates, as opposed to the tried-and -true Carolina tradition of passing and screening to get players open in the freelance offense.
Sophomore P.J. Hairston had the monster game of his college career by exploding for 23 points, many off set plays Williams called to either free a lane for a P.J. put-down at the rim or an open three-pointer. Heck, Carolina even played one possession of zone (its first all season?), although it was a miserable failure.
“We played zone out of bounds under their basket, even though we haven’t practiced it much, to keep them from getting another open three,” Williams laughed at himself after the 77-72 victory in Tallahassee. “And we let them throw the ball inside for a basket and a foul. So they got three points anyway.”
Williams also went to one-time walk-on Jackson Simmons, a 6-7 sophomore with the highest grade-point average and likely IQ on the team for 15 important minutes of smart basketball. Besides scoring eight points and grabbing three rebounds, Simmons did several of the “little things” Smith used to harp about and he was in there all the way to the final buzzer. Simmons won’t be a star or starter, but he won’t be a bench-warmer any more.
Until recruiting reinforcements arrive, or some of UNC’s young “bigs” develop more of an inside presence, Carolina looks to be a different team for the rest of this season. Whether it will work enough for the Tar Heels to make another NCAA Tournament remains to be seen. But, at 62, Roy Williams looks like he’s willing to play the game differently than he has for most of his Hall of Fame career.