Blue skies return to North Carolina

College basketball: New coach Roy Williams has quickly earned the Tar Heels' trust and put the program back on track after two years of turmoil.

College Basketball

January 13, 2004|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. - North Carolina junior guard Melvin Scott had listened for weeks to Tar Heels coach Roy Williams, who kept preaching about the need for all-out effort, all the time.

Then, 11 days ago, Scott watched Williams, who last spring left a storied Kansas program to restore the tarnished tradition at his alma mater, back up his talk with a move that stunned his team. During the first half of a 61-56 loss at Kentucky, the coach had seen enough of Carolina's sloppy, lackadaisical ways. He yanked all five starters, including Scott, and inserted a lineup that included two walk-ons.

"[Williams] is not begging anyone to play hard. If you don't want to play hard, he'll put in the last guy on the bench," Scott said. "He demands effort, and we respect it."

Based on Carolina's response on Sunday at the sold-out, raucous Smith Center, consider the message delivered. Facing an 0-2 start in league play with two home losses for the first time in their Atlantic Coast Conference history, the Tar Heels jumped on then-No. 8 Georgia Tech early and controlled the Yellow Jackets throughout a brutish, 103-88 victory that featured 52 fouls and 78 free-throw attempts.

Besides improving their record to 10-2 and beating their second ranked opponent in four tries, the Tar Heels, who moved from No. 12 to No. 9 after the victory, warmed Williams' heart by showing so much of theirs.

Forward Jawad Williams, who in previous games had suffered a concussion and a cut that required three stitches to repair his eyelid, went down in a nasty collision that broke his nose, left him with post-traumatic headaches, and most likely has knocked him out of tomorrow night's showdown at Maryland.

Center Sean May could barely move down the stretch with cramps in both calves. Backup forward David Noel, a key part of a thin bench, had fouled out.

That didn't stop point guard Raymond Felton and May from carrying the Tar Heels home by scoring a combined 53 points. It didn't stop Carolina from squelching two second-half rallies by Tech. And it marked another tangible step in the recovery of one of the game's legendary schools.

"We were embarrassed at Kentucky, and it was night and day compared to [Sunday] night," said Roy Williams, who questioned the drive of his players after the loss in Lexington.

"We had the idea that we're so good, we can do it individually. I've had to tell them this is about team play. We've had to get them to buy into how hard you have to play with the style that we want. I think the turmoil and unrest around here didn't make them buy into that as much as they needed to."

Williams, who replaced Matt Doherty after two tumultuous seasons that included an 8-20 collapse two years ago, 36 defeats and a failure to make the NCAA tournament after 27 consecutive trips that produced two national titles and nine Final Fours, is fully aware that the outside world expects him to deliver a fresh taste of Tar Heels glory.

As in right now.

After all, Williams cut his coaching teeth here under Dean Smith, took his first head coaching job at Kansas, then led the Jayhawks to 418 victories and four Final Four appearances in 15 seasons. After all, Williams has four prep All-Americans in junior Jawad Williams and the super sophomore trio of Felton, May and small forward Rashad McCants.

Williams heard the talk about his coming home to perform as the savior. He saw the preseason top 10 rankings awarded the Tar Heels. He also saw lots of things that needed fixing, starting with a lack of depth, too much selfishness and disillusionment among the players.

Felton, McCants and May represent the team's heart and soul, and they are works in progress. McCants, a moody, aloof sort ("He's not a very trusting person," Williams said), is a tremendous scorer who sometimes eschews playing defense. Felton is fighting his one-on-one preferences while trying to blend into Williams' team concept. May is trying to get into peak shape after battling foot ailments for the past year.

"Thirty-six losses in the last two years, and everybody acted like that was Matt's fault. Then, as soon as I come here, everybody is talking about the Final Four. That's crazy. Players have to be accountable at some point," Williams said.

"The biggest battles I've fought is how we need to do things collectively. Play as a team and play exceptionally hard. I don't care if you were a McDonald's All-American. The guy who is guarding you might not have been, but he might be better than you."

Williams also has sealed himself from the outside chatter, so to speak. He has no computer in his office, and therefore, no laundry list of e-mails waiting for him on a given day from hordes of dissatisfied fans wishing to make suggestions or offer protests.

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