The crash of Carolina basketball
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – On good nights Roy Williams says he sleeps between two and three hours. Most times, though, the North Carolina basketball coach is lucky if he gets any rest at all.
“I just lay there and look at the ceiling,” Williams said. “I’ll try to close my eyes and fall back asleep, but I can’t.”
Less than a year after he stood on a stage at Ford Field in Detroit and hoisted the national championship trophy, Williams is enduring the most difficult season of his Hall of Fame career. Sunday’s loss at Maryland dropped the Tar Heels to 13-10 overall and 2-6 in ACC play.
All of a sudden the coach with two national title rings and seven Final Four appearances is in danger of not making the NCAA tournament for the first time in 20 years.
All of it is taking its toll on Williams, who has literally been brought to tears by North Carolina’s recent struggles. Sitting behind his desk at the Dean Smith Center on Friday morning, a frustrated and fatigued Williams said there is only one person to blame for the Tar Heels’ shortcomings.
“I haven’t done a good job with this team,” he said. “As a coach, to say that … it’s hard. It really is.”
Williams paused as a lump swelled in this throat. He gulped and then lowered his voice as he strained to speak.
“I’ve always been very confident,” he said. “Other people can decide whether they think I’m cocky or not. Cocky is someone that looks down his nose at somebody else. I know I’ve never done that. But I’ve always been really confident in my ability to get guys to play together and to compete.
“This year has shaken my confidence a little. You start questioning your own worth to a team. You start wondering about your ability.”
Appreciative as they are that he’s taking the blame, North Carolina fans don’t seem to be spewing much venom toward Williams. Sure, there are occasional negative posts on Internet message boards and comments on radio shows.
For the most part, though, Tar Heel nation understands that North Carolina is in rebuilding mode after losing four players to the NBA – including first-rounders Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington – from last year’s team.
“Maybe we’ve been shielded from [the criticism], but I think people are being really patient,” assistant coach Joe Holladay said. “After winning those two national championships in 2005 and 2009, people don’t really think, ‘Roy has lost his mind here.’ They think, ‘He’s a Hall of Fame coach. The kids just aren’t getting it yet.’”
Whatever the case, Williams knows he’s running out of time. The loss to the Terrapins marked North Carolina’s sixth defeat in its last seven games. At this point the Tar Heels’ chances of making the NCAA tournament appear slim at best.
The only time Williams coached a team that didn’t earn a berth was at Kansas in 1988-89 – his first season as a head coach. The Jayhawks were banned from postseason play that year because of improprieties that occurred under the previous staff.
Williams has been to the tournament every year since and won at least one game. That streak, it appears, is about to end.
“We knew it was going to be a fine line,” Williams said. “We knew we had a chance to be good, but we also knew there was a chance we could struggle. But never in my wildest dreams did I think we’d struggle like we are right now.”
Fearing that its Saturday flight may be canceled because of snow, the North Carolina basketball team left for Sunday’s game against Maryland two days early.
“Maybe we’ll all sit around the hotel for 48 hours and have Kumbaya meetings,” Holladay said.
Holladay was joking – but it certainly didn’t seem like a bad idea. Williams, after all, has tried every trick he could imagine to change the Tar Heels’ fortunes. Nothing has worked.
“I’ve spent time going over our practice plans from five years ago to 10 years ago at Kansas, to see what I’ve done differently,” Williams said. “That’s frustrating, too, because I’m discovering that I haven’t done anything differently. The stuff I’ve had success with isn’t working.”
Among the Tar Heels’ low points were a loss at the College of Charleston and a 15-point home setback to Virginia. Sunday’s 21-point defeat at Maryland was the worst of the season for a team that was ranked as high as No. 6 a few months ago.
“Maybe we’re just not as good as we thought we’d be,” Holladay said. “This has blindsided all of us.”
Williams said his biggest disappointment has been his failure to motivate his players, who seem to lack the fire and determination that epitomized his teams of the past.
“It’s the only time in my life where I’ve been frustrated about my team not playing hard enough,” Williams said. “Even in years when we haven’t been very good, every [opposing] coach has always said, ‘Boy, their teams play so hard.’ No one is saying that now.
“I’ve never coached effort. I always coached execution. But with this group I’ve had to coach effort. Our personnel may not fit playing as fast as I’d like to play. But I’ve got to be able to do something to get them to play harder.”
Porous as North Carolina’s passion has been at times, it’s also clear that the Tar Heels are far less talented than they’ve been in the past. And they’re certainly hurting when it comes to balance.
North Carolina’s frontcourt was considered the nation’s best before injuries began to take a toll. The backcourt, meanwhile, is filled with inexperienced freshmen and sophomores who would hardly see the court at most Top 25 schools.
All of it begs the question: How did this happen?
The obvious answer is the graduation of Hansbrough and Danny Green and the decision by Lawson and Ellington to leave school a year early and enter the NBA draft. Williams said he assumed all along that Ellington, a slasher and 3-point specialist, was a four-year player. And there’s no doubt that his presence on this year’s team would give North Carolina the outside threat it so glaringly lacks.
“But he ended up going in the first round and got guaranteed money,” Williams said. “So you can’t fault him for that.”
What some people fault Williams for, however, is that he didn’t have many standout players ready to take the foursome’s place. Lawson (37 minutes), Ellington (35), Hansbrough (34) and Green (24) all played extensive minutes in last year’s NCAA championship victory over Michigan State. Only two current players – Deon Thompson (23 minutes) and Ed Davis (14) – saw significant action.
It was basically that way all season.
“The reason those guys played so much is because there is a considerable difference between them and the guys that would’ve come in to replace them,” Williams said.
“We had good depth, but other than Ed Davis, we didn’t have the kind of depth where everyone was saying, ‘Oh wow, they’re really going to be something down the road.’ It was not that.”
The ideal situation would’ve been for Williams to have standouts waiting in the wings to step in once players decided to move on. Williams, though, said the culture of college basketball has changed.
He said it’s becoming more and more difficult to sign Top 20-caliber players when there is already so much talent on one team.
“We got Tyler Hansbrough in 2006 when he thought Sean May and Marvin Williams would be back,” Williams said. “Luckily, that didn’t bother him. But those kinds of situations are rare.
“We’re going to take hits sometimes. In this case we didn’t get a couple of players that we wanted because we had Tyler and Danny Green and Wayne Ellington and Ty Lawson. The [recruits] were like, ‘I don’t want to come in and be a backup to those guys for two or three years.’
“People are always going to criticize and nitpick at things that they don’t understand. The bottom line is that I’ve got to coach who we have. If I make a great decision in recruiting or a bad decision in recruiting, I’ve still got to coach them.”
So Williams is doing his best to work with sophomore point Larry Drew (3.2 turnovers a game) and freshman Dexter Strickland, a combo guard who was thrust into action before he was ready.
Making things tougher is the fact that North Carolina lacks a quality small forward and is shooting just 36.4 percent from 3-point range a team. Forward Tyler Zeller (9.6 points) has been out for nearly a month because of an injury while forward Davis and guard Marcus Ginyard have also missed time.
“With Tyler Zeller being out … I mean, that’s 10 points a game,” Holladay said. “But [Roy] never talks about that. It’s not like he’s saying, ‘Hey, we’re just not very good this year.’ He’s not going to make the excuse of, ‘Well, we’ve got nine freshmen and sophomores, and we’ve had injuries.’ He’s not going to do that. He thinks we can turn it around tomorrow.”
Williams points out that his 1991 Kansas team made the Final Four with only one NBA draft pick (Mark Randall) in the lineup. The Jayhawks accomplished the feat again two years later with just one first-round pick (Rex Walters) in the rotation.
“This team needs to find that kind of hunger that those teams lived on,” Williams said. “They lived on hunger and on being competitive.
“In recruiting you always look back and say, ‘So-and-so is better than I thought or so-and-so is not as good as I thought.’ But when you’re coaching a team it doesn’t make any difference. You have to coach the team that’s out on the floor.”
Former North Carolina standout Eric Montross is now a radio analyst for the Tar Heels. He said he’s been impressed with how hard Williams is working to reach his players.
“I think Coach Williams has himself in a situation where the team might not be identifying with the same methods that he’s used all these years and been so successful with,” Montross said.
“He doesn’t have to re-invent the wheel, but he may have to go back to a basic, somewhat remedial level, to get these guys to identify with the basics of the game to become successful.
“I’ve seen how easy it is to fall into a slump – and how quickly you can snap out of it.”
As the final seconds ticked away in Sunday’s 21-point loss at Maryland, Terrapins fans began to taunt the Tar Heels about their likely postseason destination.
“N-I-T!” they chanted. “N-I-T!”
All the while, North Carolina players sat stone-faced on the bench, many of them covering their heads with towels.
“It’s about as disappointing as it gets,” Ginyard told reporters afterward. “It’s about as disappointing as it looks.”
North Carolina entered the season having won four of the previous five ACC titles while going 64-16 in league play during that span. In his first six years in Chapel Hill, Williams went to three Final Fours and won two national titles.
The question now is how long it will be before the Tar Heels return to that level. Starters such as Ginyard and Deon Thompson are seniors this season, and sophomore Ed Davis is expected to turn pro.
North Carolina signed one of the nation’s top recruiting classes – led by No. 2 overall prospect Harrison Barnes – but it’s never wise to rely on freshmen to carry your team.
Williams, though, insists he’s not looking that far ahead. A showdown with archrival Duke looms on Wednesday. Even with a 2-6 league record and losses in six of his last seven games, he is clinging to hope that North Carolina can turn things around in time to make a run at an NCAA berth – even if it means earning an automatic bid by winning the ACC tournament, an event he’s always despised, but may now need.
As frustrated as they are with their struggles, the Tar Heels proved earlier this season they could compete with the country’s top teams. They beat Michigan State and Ohio State and went nose-to-nose with Texas and Kentucky before losing.
“The problem,” assistant coach Jerod Haase said, “is that when you’re in a big-time conference like the ACC, one loss can turn into multiple losses in a heartbeat, even if you’re playing well.
“Things can snowball – but they can snowball the other way, too. One good win can lead to more good things, and all of a sudden you’re right back in the mix.”
Until that happens, Williams said he’ll watch film, tweak practice plans, come up with motivational speeches.
And continue to lose sleep.
“One thing I’ve realized lately is that I’ve lived a pretty charmed life,” he said. “This has been unbelievable. My vocabulary isn’t good enough to give you the words to describe it.
“All I can do is just sit here and shake my head.”