Wild card

Wild card
By Dan Wetzel, Yahoo Sports
April 3, 2005

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports
ST. LOUIS – One minute he is providing an insightful and thoughtful answer rarely heard at a Final Four press conference. The next he has his head back and a frown on his face that makes you wonder if he wouldn't rather be mining coal somewhere.

One minute he is talking about his love of structured, team basketball. The next he is waxing nostalgic about the freedom you get from playing street ball.

There were the seven games this year in which Rashad McCants scored 20 or more points. And the four he didn't make double figures.

Whether he is misunderstood, truly an enigma or, perhaps most likely, just a complex kid, the Tar Heels' megatalented two guard found himself in the spotlight here on Sunday.

Monday's NCAA title game match-up between Illinois and North Carolina is being hyped as a clash between team (the Illini) and talent (the Tar Heels). If there is a single reason why Carolina is perceived as such, it is the junior from Asheville and his back-and-forth public demeanor.

When Tar Heels coach Roy Williams wanted to bang home a lesson about unselfish play earlier this season, he showed his team tape of the Illini whipping a ball around the offensive end 15 times before getting an easy basket.

It stands to reason, no one has ever shown their team tape of McCants at his gunslinging, cantankerous worst.

Then again, McCants could score about 36 Monday and lead Williams to his first NCAA title.

"I've always been a team player," McCants said Sunday when asked what he would like fans to really know about him. "Always. Not just at North Carolina. Last year I was a ball hog. I was averaging 20 points a game and shooting 50 percent from the floor. I never thought I took too many shots.

"Now that I am passing the ball, guys are saying 'Oh God, he can pass. Oh God, he can defend.' I've always been a basketball player. I've always wanted to win."

This is not necessarily an opinion shared by Williams, who believed McCants' insistence in taking bad shots a year ago hurt the Heels. But that, Williams says, is something that has changed. At least we think.

The relationship between Williams and his players is almost always a close one. He jokes with the guys. The mutual respect and affection is always there. Not quite with McCants. When Williams was asked to describe their relationship, McCants groaned, threw his head back and closed his eyes like he couldn't bear to hear the answer.

"He has been the most scrutinized player I have ever worked with," Williams said. "And yet, when I [sat] down with him in the spring and told him three things I wanted him to do, he's done every single one of them. We wouldn't be here without Rashad."

Williams, ever aware of McCants' emotions, then asked his player what he thought of the explanation. McCants gave him a thumb up.

Of course, later, in a roundabout way, McCants insinuated he liked the way Illinois' Bruce Weber coaches better than Williams, complimenting Weber on the freedom he gives his players and calling him a "mastermind."

So who is this guy? He's been dissected like a lab rat for three years down on Tobacco Road, and no one is entirely sure.

Is this a great home-grown story, a kid from the mountain town of Asheville about to deliver a title to Blue Heaven?

Or is McCants a wild card who is just as likely to get frustrated and shoot Carolina right out of contention?

"It's not fair," Williams said. "He's brought some of it on, but I tell you what, it's the most unfair rap that I've ever been around."

McCants is extremely bright, but he isn't just going to play along and say what he is supposed to say. He relishes being a bit different, which for the most part is admirable.

But it has hurt his reputation. At times it has hurt his game.

Now that he's 40 minutes from silencing all of his critics, what does McCants believe is the key to Monday's championship game?

"Who wants it more," he shrugged.

Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.

Updated on Monday, Apr 4, 2005 4:56 pm, EDT

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