CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- For 10 years, Roy Williams was an obscure assistant to one of the most high-profile coaches in college basketball. But working for Dean Smith at the University of North Carolina has its benefits.
For instance, getting one of the most prestigious jobs in the country without a lick of head-coaching experience on the college level. Or, perhaps, soaking up the knowledge imparted by Smith and successfully implementing the Tar Heels system at the University of Kansas.
Asked yesterday how similar his coaching philosophies and strategies are to Smith's, Williams said: "If I had to tell you how it's similar, we'd be here the whole day. I think Coach Smith is the best there is."
If there's something that Smith hasn't been successful at during his illustrious career, it's getting the best of Indiana's Bob Knight, especially in the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament.
Tonight, Williams has a chance to come out from Smith's long shadow by doing something his mentor never has done in the NCAA tournament, when third seed Kansas (24-7) plays second seed Indiana (29-4) in the second Southeast Regional semifinal at the Charlotte Coliseum. Top seed Arkansas (33-3) plays No. 4 seed Alabama (23-9) in the first game.
"I'm not sure many people think we are going to win," said Williams, who was an assistant at North Carolina when the Tar Heels lost to Indiana in the 1981 NCAA championship game, and later in the 1984 East Regional semifinal. "My mother thinks we can win, and she's going to be there. But she doesn't think her little boy can do anything wrong."
Then again, there are many out in Lawrence, Kan., who are starting to think the same thing about Williams. Kansas went 19-12 in his first season, which the then-defending national champion Jayhawks spent on NCAA probation. Kansas was 30-5 last season, and Williams was named national Coach of the Year by the U.S. Basketball Writers.
In fact, one of the only blemishes on his record was a one-point defeat to UCLA in the second round of last year's tournament, a loss that still haunts the Jayhawks and has been used by Williams as something of a motivational force this season.
"This team has played with a lot of comparisons to last year," said Williams, who lost four starters from last season's team. "And now they've accomplished more than last year. It's been a heck of a road for us."
The road to Kansas has been an interesting one for Williams. From walk-on freshman team scrub at North Carolina in 1968 to high school coach for five years in Swannanoa, N.C., to assistant under Smith. There were some who thought he would make
TC career there, but Williams had other plans.
"I knew that when the right job came along, it would hit me in the face," said Williams, 40. "It would have my name written on it."
The job Williams took not only had his name on it, but also a severe NCAA probation attached. The Jayhawks were found to have violated a bunch of basketball crimes and misdemeanors under former coach and fellow North Carolina alum Larry Brown, and became the first national champions not allowed to defend their title because of sanctions.
"It was the worst year I'd ever had as a coach in college or high school," said Williams, who was left with nine scholarship players, three of whom got hurt. "There were so many distractions. We tried to put a Band-Aid here or there to patch up the ship. I was fortunate to have a great bunch of kids who rallied around me."
One of those players, Mark Randall, said that Williams was inspiring. Though most hadn't heard of Williams before he was introduced to them, it took only one meeting to convince them that athletic director Bob Frederick couldn't have made a better choice.
"He laid down the ground rules, and talked about the system he was going to use," said Randall, now a senior captain and the team's second-leading scorer. "I don't think there was anyone who walked out of that meeting without a smile on their face. We didn't know a whole lot about him before that meeting, but we knew a whole lot after it. He's the best coach I've ever been around."
Others have been equally impressed. Though it's no surprise that Smith thinks highly of Williams -- "He's simply an exceptional guy," Smith said earlier this week -- one of Williams' biggest fans turns out to be a guy with just as impeccable coaching credentials. A guy named Knight.
Seems that Williams called Knight last summer to see if he could attend an Indiana practice before this season. The two ended up spending some time together that day. "He's as impressive a guy to come into coaching as I've seen in a long time," Knight said yesterday. "He's a lot like the boy who coaches Duke. I couldn't ever pronounce his name."
Williams is a lot easier to pronounce than Krzyzewski. And, for the time being, not quite as well known. But that could change soon, maybe even tonight.