04/05/05 — NCAA Commentary: Seeing is believing

View Archive

NCAA Commentary: Seeing is believing

By Wire
Published in Sports on April 5, 2005 1:56 PM

ST. LOUIS -- Roy Williams started walking slowly up the sideline as the longest three seconds of his life ticked off the clock. Instead of jumping, shouting or even pumping a fist, he calmly reached up to make sure his glasses sat squarely on the bridge of his nose.

After 17 seasons, 16 NCAA tournament appearances, five Final Fours and two losses in the title game, this was one thing that Williams had to see for himself.

Wave after wave of confetti floated down from the domed roof, over the scoreboard that read North Carolina 75, Illinois 70, and twirled in lazy spirals toward the floor. But Williams had no trouble picking his way through the maze to find the people he owed. What began as a receiving line quickly turned into a mosh pit as first Sean May, then Rashad McCants, and the rest of the Tar Heels wrapped their long-suffering coach in bear hugs.

"I'm just so happy for myself, my family and these seniors who went 8-20 and what they went through for four years," Williams said. "They took me for a heck of a ride."

All through the weekend, Williams was on the defensive, trying to explain why the ball always bounced someone else's way in the big one.

It was a torturous exercise, to be sure, listening to one of the best coaches of his generation wade through one painful memory after another, never daring to say there had to be a championship out there with his name on it. Instead, Williams retold the story of how his mentor Dean Smith, had to sweat through seven Final Fours to get his; and how one of the first things Smith did afterward was turn to Williams, his assistant then, and say with relief, "I'm not that much better a coach now than I was two and a half hours ago."

And no sooner had Williams taken his seat in the interview room Monday night, wearing a smile stretched wider than the spread collar on his starched white shirt, than he told reporters gathered in front of him, "I'm no better a coach than I was three hours ago."

That might be true, but the previous three hours required every ounce of knowledge and skill Williams picked up along the way from the playgrounds of Spruce Pine, N.C., through 15 seasons at Kansas, and the last two at Carolina, where he returned to find a once-proud program down at the heels. He had to learn to push the buttons of all those talented kids who came to play for his predecessor, Matt Doherty, and Williams had to do it quick.

Some of it was easy, like getting Sean May to slim down and muscle up so he could play with power instead of finesse. Some of it was much harder, like keeping McCants and the rest of his NBA-caliber squad happy with limited minutes and playing the disciplined inside-out style that Williams devised.

And then, those players had exactly three hours to prove not only what they'd learned, but whether they trusted each other enough to beat a fierce, opportunistic Illinois team.

That meant May had to keep pounding underneath the basket, fighting for nearly all of his 26 points and 10 rebounds. It meant Williams had to play hunches on when to go zone, and when to sit Raymond Felton, his best ballhandler, to keep him out of foul trouble. Most of all, when to sit back as a 15-point lead evaporated to zero and let the team find its own way back.

"For many years down the line, he'll always talk about this 2005 team," May said, "how special we were, and the things we did. You know, how through adversity we stuck together, even when the outside world didn't really give us a fair shot."

It only seemed that way to May, the son of former Indiana great and national champion Scott May, who celebrated his own 21st birthday with one the best performances of his career. If anything, the opposite was true.

Just about everybody expected Carolina to be here, from the Tar Heel faithful, to an alumni class that included Michael Jordan, James Worthy, Phil Ford and Sam Perkins, to revered Coach Smith, and even the pollsters, who put Carolina at No. 4 when the season kicked off.

The biggest question was whether Williams, who had this much talent at Kansas and never went all the way, could finally put the pieces together. At the end of the night, the puzzle fit and Williams took a deep breath and stepped back to assess his handiwork.

"Does it feel as good or better than I thought?" he said. "I never let myself think that far ahead to have any idea of what it was supposed to feel like."

Maybe so.

But just this once, Williams finally saw what a championship looked like with his own two eyes.

(Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org.)