Criticized McCants may get last laugh

Labeled as a malcontent, North Carolina junior is just one step from title

NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament

April 04, 2005|By Jeff Zrebiec | Jeff Zrebiec,SUN STAFF

ST. LOUIS -- Over the past three weeks, North Carolina's Rashad McCants has been both dominant and invisible. He thrilled his coach with a potentially game-saving defensive play against Wisconsin and then enraged him with his inability to dive on the floor for a loose ball Saturday night against Michigan State.

And he has done it all the while mixing smiles with scowls, periods of seeming indifference with stretches of intense focus. McCants, the Tar Heels' junior swing man, may be the most talented player in the Edward Jones Dome tonight when North Carolina takes on Illinois in the national championship game. He'll definitely be the most scrutinized.

"He has been the most scrutinized player that I've ever worked with," said Tar Heels coach Roy Williams. "He's brought some of it on, but I tell you what, it's the most unfair rap that I've ever been around a player."

As Williams spoke yesterday, McCants, who has been labeled a malcontent throughout his career in Chapel Hill, was seated four chairs down at the podium, along with the rest of the North Carolina starters.

Marvin and Jawad Williams joked around throughout the news conference. Sean May and Raymond Felton smiled. Then there was McCants, who leaned back in his seat and wore a look of disdain that seemed better suited for a doctor's office.

At one point, when Roy Williams was asked about his occasionally tumultuous relationship with his mercurial guard, McCants gasped, threw his head back and stared at the ceiling. After Williams answered the question, he asked McCants, "How did I do?"

McCants, who has measured his words carefully since feeling his comparison between playing at North Carolina and being in prison was taken out of context, gave a thumbs-up.

"You guys make it kind of tough [to enjoy] sometimes," said McCants, who has tattoos on his arms with the phrases "Born to be hated" and "Dying to be loved."

"There's been a lot of scrutiny and criticism and things like that, and I've tried to change my game because you guys say I can't do certain things and then I do them and people say I don't do them good enough.

"But now that we're here, I feel like I've done all that I can do for my team. [Tonight] hopefully, we'll be holding that trophy up."

On the court, McCants is scoring 16.1 points a game, four below what he averaged last season. However, his shooting (.493) and three-point percentage (.423) are up, and so is McCants' assist total (87 after having 65 last season).

Last spring, Williams met with McCants and urged him to be more unselfish, to take the ball to the basket rather than hoist outside jump shots, and to play harder on defense. There have been lapses -- like Saturday night when McCants twice failed to get on the floor for a ball and was rewarded with a benching -- but Williams said that McCants has done "every single thing" he wanted him to do.

Said junior center Sean May: "He's taken four, five less shots a game. The way, he plays, it's so much different than last year. He's willing to sacrifice for the betterment of the team, and I don't think he gets enough credit for that."

In last week's Elite Eight game against Wisconsin in Syracuse, N.Y., McCants was twice yanked him from the game, but he later blocked a three-point attempt by the Badgers' Clayton Hanson, who had already hit five threes, with the Tar Heels clinging to a late three-point lead.

"I've always been a team player," said McCants, who had 17 points, six rebounds and four assists on Saturday against the Spartans. "I think there was a mass perception that last year I was a ball hog of some sort. I averaged 20 points and shot 50 percent [actually, 47.9 percent] from the field. I didn't feel I took too many bad shots. Now that I'm passing the ball, it seems like guys are touching me on the forehead and saying, `He can pass.' Some things you have to fight through."

That has been McCants' mantra throughout a difficult regular season off the court. He missed the Tar Heels' last four regular-season games with an intestinal disorder. Then, before the Duke game on Feb. 9, he learned that his mother, Brenda Muckelvene, had breast cancer. But now, McCants is exactly where he wants to be.

"The player that I am and the stage that this is, I am definitely going to have to come to play," said McCants, who likely will be guarded by his good friend, Illinois' Deron Williams, who has already shut down Arizona's Salim Stoudamire and Louisville's Francisco Garcia. "And when I come to play, sometimes it's definitely not pretty on a defender."

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