It's probably about time to kick off our annual ACC previews, so we'll start
with the most interesting one first. This year, without question, that will be
UNC, which lured Roy Williams back home from Kansas, and therefore raises a
million questions about the upcoming season.
When you think about it, when UNC hired Roy Williams, they did something ACC
schools almost never do: they hired a big-time, established coach.
That's very rare in the conference. Frank McGuire was hired by UNC to
keep up with N.C. State and Everett Case, then he was hired later by South
Carolina to keep up with UNC's Dean Smith and Duke's Vic Bubas.
Mostly, though, the conference schools have either gambled with young, rising
head coaches (Coach K, Clif Ellis, Lefty Driesell, Terry Holland, Jim Valvano,
Dave Odom, Bobby Cremins), impressive assistants (Dean Smith, Vic Bubas, Jeff
Jones), or guys who have established themselves as successful mid-major coaches
(Bill Foster, Bill Foster, Bob Staack, Skip Prosser), but who are usually in
their late 40s or early 50s. Two guys who don't fit that pattern are Gary
Williams, who came from the Big 10, but who was then not regarded as a great
coach, just a good coach, and Leonard Hamilton, who is a rebuilding specialist.
Roy Williams is a different kettle of fish. With the possible exception
of McGuire, we can't think of another coach who moved to the ACC who was
without question a Hall of Famer upon arrival: he's won .805% of his
games, and has been national coach of the year in 1990, 1991, 1992 and 1997
Roy Williams (you'll notice he calls himself Roy Williams a lot, which
reminds us of the Seinfeld episode where George starting referring to himself in
the same way, saying things like "George is gettting angry!") is definitely that. He has established himself as one of
the Top 10 coaches of this era (think: Knight, K, Chaney, Williams, Izzo,
Majerus, Williams, Tubby Smith, Lute Olson, and maybe Mark Few. for argument's
sake, or Eddy Sutton. Discuss!), and out of that bunch, only Krzyzewski,
Olson, and Knight and maybe a still-youngish Izzo could really argue that they are superior coaches.
So, just as they did when Frank McGuire came in, UNC has announced to a
conference which collectively had begun to dismiss the Heels as a power: slow
down, buckos. Not so fast, buckaroos.
Roy Williams returns to Chapel Hill after the disastrous Matt Doherty era, an
era which began with amazing rumors coming out of Chapel Hill about Doh's
treatment of long-time staffers, of previous coaches, and of course, of
players. In the beginning, we could barely believe the accounts, but as
time went on, and more and more came to light, finally, even Dean Smith turned
on his former player, first offering some stunning comments in an addendum to a
book about the succession to Bill Guthridge which were notably unsupportive,
then saying this when Doherty was dumped: "I was pushing to give him more time, very much so, and then some people shared some of the problems and then you could see where they were coming from. You can put it that way."
In DeanSpeak, in DeanWorld, you have to understand, the first principle is
total loyalty. Cut it anyway you like, by Dean's standards, that's an
amazingly harsh thing to say about a former player.
So in comes Roy, and while Matt screwed a lot of things up, one thing he
definitely did not screw up was getting talent. He made a couple of panic
judgments - Byron Sanders was a reach, albeit with potential, and, barring huge
improvement, Damion Grant is likely a major bust.
But when you look at the core of the team - Jawad Williams, Melvin Scott,
Raymond Felton, Rashad McCants, Sean May, David Noel, Jackie Manuel and
Reyshawn Terry - that's a pretty good group, small though it is, and young, too.
And while it's small, it's also fast, talented, and more than capable of
doing damage, particularly in a running game.
Any discussion of UNC begins with Raymond Felton. At the beginning of
last season, it was possible to say, "what's the big deal about this
kid?" But that ended, as Felton began to show spectacular
talent. He's potentially the best point guard in Chapel Hill since Phil
Ford left in 1978, and that takes Kenny Smith and Derrick Phelps into account,
both of whom were superb.
But perhaps the key to this team is Rashad McCants. A mercurial fellow
who fell into a deep funk last season, McCants, more than anyone, with the
possible exception of David Noel, is capable of playing much bigger than he
is. He could be a big difference in rebounding and in defending bigger
opponents. When his head is properly engaged, he can be amazing.
Just as typically, though, he often seemed to fall off an emotional cliff last
season, though given what we learned about the Doherty regime, perhaps it's
understandable. This kid has the potential to be absolutely huge,
though. He is likely to be one of the two or three most improved players
in the conference.
David Noel was a wonderful surprise. A kid who planned to play football
in Chapel Hill originally, Noel decided on hoops, and his athleticism became
quickly evident. He took McCants' spot away for part of the
season, and when is the last time you heard of a walk-on freshman doing that?
UNC's problems have been inside, and while McCants and Noel can help there,
they'll be out of position. The best big man, by far, is Sean May, who
lost most of last year to a foot injury. When we saw him, May was a
sweet-shooting big man who had some fine moves, but who needed to be in better
shape. He's really a power forward, of course, but in the current college
environment, he's basically a center like everyone else his size.
UNC's other starter is likely to be Jawad Williams. Like McCants,
Williams has been up and down at UNC, showing spectacular ability at times, but
disappearing at others. He's not really inclined to play inside, but as
one of the bigger guys on the team, he'll need to at times. He tends to
play more like a guard at times, which is fine except for his team's size
Manuel, Scott, and Terry form a compact yet versatile bench. If they
can get anything out of Sanders or Grant, they'll take it as a blessing.
The first question in any coaching transition is the talent of the
coach. There's no question about that in this case. The second question is
the talent present. The third question is
how players adapt to new roles, because to an extent, even if it's just the
relationship with the coach, everyone's role changes with a new hire.
This is where we think McCants will greatly benefit, and Felton will work
with a coach who clearly understands point guards. UNC will have to
minmize the inside game for now, and will likely run to compensate for their
The interregnum in Chapel Hill is over. UNC may struggle with size and
depth this season, but in the long run, the program will thrive. An irony
of note: for years, Dean Smith was said to be unable to win the national
title. He won his first one with a loaded team - Michael Jordan, James
Worthy, Sam Perkins, and a kid from New York who had an unfortunate twist in his
head coaching career. He won his second with one of the purest teams we've
ever seen, and the notion that he couldn't win the big one was retired.
Now it's passed on to Roy Williams, who comes into an ACC with four national
titles between Mike Krzyzewski and Gary Williams, who seems a bit testy towards his
new conference rival.
Future Hall of Famer that he is, Roy Williams still starts out his ACC
career, in one sense, anyway, as only the third best coach in the
conference. We frankly expect he'll coach circles around Gary Williams,
who, now that Steve Blake, steady master of the halfcourt game has left, has said he'll go back to his more frenetic
pace of earlier years, and his battles with Krzyzewski should be epic.
The ACC as a whole will benefit enormously from UNC's renaissance, and the
traditional pleasure of the ABC club (anyone but UNC), which lately has been the
ABD club, will quickly revive. We're looking forward to some great
basketball, and so welcome Roy home, in the most sincerely flattering way we can
think of: go to hell, Roy Williams, go to hell!
And thanks for coming back. It's going to be highly entertaining and immensely passionate: ACC basketball at it's finest, in a nutshell.