Archive for Saturday, April 2, 2005

Commentary: Doubts will mount if Williams doesn’t win

April 2, 2005


— He doesn't have Rick Pitino's swaggering charm, or the fresh-faced innocence of Bruce Weber, or the scrappy brilliance of Tom Izzo.

In fact, Roy Williams, coach at North Carolina, doesn't have much here at the NCAA Final Four except the best team in the tournament.

His story line has nothing to do with charm, innocence or brilliance. It concerns whether he will finally be able to fill the gaping hole in his coaching resume by winning a national championship in his fifth trip to the Final Four.

If not now, with this team, which includes four certain NBA players, then when?

"Just keep on trying until it happens," said Pitino, asked how Williams should go about his quest. "Certainly, being at a Kansas or a North Carolina, it definitely will happen, if not this year, another year. Those programs are too strong for it not to happen. It just takes time and patience, a little luck along the way, and it will happen."

Williams was on the court Friday at the massive Edward Jones Dome, working through one last practice to try to make it happen.

Sometime today, he plans to walk the team down to the Mississippi River, and, if history is a guide, he'll spit into the river for good luck the same way a young Southern boy might spit onto a baited hook before tossing it into the water.

Williams spit into the river a little farther downstream when he was a North Carolina assistant coach and Dean Smith, his boss, was stalking the 1982 NCAA championship in New Orleans after four previous trips to the Final Four without a title.

The symmetry is inescapable. Of all the coaches who emerged from Smith's program, Williams remained the closest to him. He worked as a Tar Heels assistant for 10 years before spending 15 seasons as head coach at Kansas.

If Williams and Larry Brown were Smith's favorite sons, Williams was content to sweep the basement for years while Brown chose to wander, eternally loyal but from a distance.

When Smith and the Tar Heels won that 1982 championship -- by a single point over Georgetown and only by dint of a terrible turnover by the Hoyas at the end of the game -- Williams was the first to embrace him and congratulate him on reaching the pinnacle of the journey.

Smith, ever prickly and ever the realist, pulled back slightly and said: "I don't think I'm any better a coach than I was two hours ago."

Those who believed that Smith could really coach didn't have their minds changed that night, and those who believed that Smith damn well ought to win with a team that included James Worthy, Sam Perkins and Michael Jordan didn't think any more of him, either.

The fact of modern college basketball, where the rich don't necessarily get richer but they don't get poor, either, is that the big boys get the most talent and they are supposed to win the championships.

Sooner or later, Williams figures to win one, as Pitino suggested. But if he doesn't, he will have to live with those who wonder whether that isn't such a coincidence.

This season, North Carolina is remarkably talented. The point guard, shooting guard, power forward and sixth man are all going to be drafted and are generally expected to have good NBA careers.

Last weekend, at the Syracuse Regional, however, the Tar Heels underperformed against both Villanova and Wisconsin. They didn't score well in the first game, didn't defend well in the second, and all in all, they are extremely fortunate to be in St. Louis.

When the Tar Heels can't run with the abandon they prefer, when they get into a little bit of foul trouble, they are a team that is eminently beatable. They don't seem to have a change-up to go with their fastball, and you wonder why not.

Williams is patient with the questions. He listened to Smith answer them 25 years ago, so they don't come as a surprise. If he never wins a national championship, he thinks, his career still will be regarded as a good one. If he is still answering these same questions in 10 years, it will mean that his teams won a doggone lot of basketball games.

The coach talks like that, and he is sincere as far as it goes. Tonight, he will take that philosophy into the semifinals against Michigan State, a team that likes to run every bit as much as the Tar Heels.

Win tonight and North Carolina will get either Louisville or Illinois for the championship. Those are two of the very few teams that can match the Heels in the backcourt.

Maybe this is the "one of these years" for Williams. Maybe it will simply be marked by another stumble on the final steps of the climb.

If this keeps up much longer, Williams won't be spitting into the river for good luck. He will be spitting into a strong wind that whispers what he has done and howls what he hasn't.

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