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UNC Basketball: The case for Roy Williams as ACC COY

Good ol’ Roy is still finding new ways to impress us, but will he finally get the recognition he deserves this year?

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

For as long as he has been a head coach at the University of North Carolina, Roy Williams has been underappreciated for what he manages to do with his teams every year. A large part of that is because of the name on the front of the jersey — there is this myth that just because UNC is UNC, that equals the best recruits every year, thus coaching should be easy. Well, if there was ever a year to disprove that, go look at Kentucky’s team this year and tell me that you believe any of that is accurate.

The other part of this is that Roy Williams is coaching down the road from another Hall of Fame coach in Durham that has been crowned as arguably the greatest coach in college basketball right now, maybe even ever. It’s a tall statement to make, considering that Roy Williams has been able to come dangerously close to replicating Coach K’s success in a North Carolina-based program in a shorter amount of time. Coach K has won five national championships and has went to twelve Final Fours since he arrived at Duke in 1980. Roy Williams has three national championships, and has went to five Final Fours since he took the UNC job in 2003. When looking at what Williams has accomplished in a shorter amount of time, it’s easy to wonder how it is even debatable, especially when you throw in the back-to-back National Championship appearances with rosters built during the negative recruitment periods courtesy of the NCAA investigation.

Alas, we aren’t here to compare Roy Williams to John Calipari, and we aren’t even here to compare the legacies of Roy and Coach K. This is about the ACC Coach of the Year award — an award given to the most deserving head coach of the ACC every year based on...well, what is it based on? Truth is, I don’t know that anybody really knows anymore. It most certainly isn’t given to the best coach in the conference, or else we are back to scratching our heads trying to figure out how Georgia Tech’s head coach Josh Pastner managed to get it last year. The loudest statement was that his GT debut exceeded expectations, which is very backhanded if that is at all true (side note: Pastner, my man, call your friends on their birthday). The ACC COY award isn’t supposed to serve as a sticker that you give a coach for actually being able to keep your team from going winless in the ACC. Coach of the year awards should be, well, for the coach that did the best job that particular year.

If we are to look at what an actual coach of the year should be, Roy Williams is one of the first names that should come up in the conversation for 2017-18. Media and fans alike love to make excuses not to give it to him, including the following:

  1. He has too much talent on his teams to fail.
  2. He never calls timeouts.
  3. He has so many upperclassmen that he handcuffed into staying, of course he’s going to be successful.
  4. My personal favorite: “He cheated, Roy knew! ROY KNEW!”

For every amazing job Roy Williams does with a UNC team, there is always a new excuse to keep him from getting coach of the year. Everyone knows like I know, however, that Roy himself could care less about accolades. He is a product of Dean Smith, and will finish his career as a product of Dean Smith. While it is hard not to love him for it, it is also mind-boggling to see him get passed over year after year for the award. In fact, Williams has only won the award twice: in 2006 and in 2011. This year, that needs to change.

When looking at this year’s roster, the only McDonald’s All-Americans left on the team are the ones that ignored everyone in 2014 that told them not to sign with UNC, and put all of their faith in Roy Williams. Joel Berry II and Theo Pinson have been attempting to lead their team to a third Final Four in a row, with the bigger pieces of last year’s National Championship team having rode off into the sunset. Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks, Tony Bradley, and Justin Jackson all were crucial last year’s success, with Tony Bradley’s exit causing the most damage. Without him, UNC for the first time in a long time hasn’t had a reliable big man on the court (well, aside from Luke Maye who is a bit undersized). To add insult to injury: Cameron Johnson missed a large amount of time in the beginning of the season due to injury, Seventh Woods got hurt early on, and Joel Berry II injured his hand due to a video game-related incident. To say things weren’t ideal for a Roy Williams team to start the season was an understatement, and things just got weirder.

Eventually Joel Berry was healthy, and Cameron Johnson came back and tried to find his groove with his new team. Roy Williams spent the front-end of the season trying to figure out which big man was going to give him what he needed in order for UNC to execute his game plan. What did the answer turn out to be? Nobody. Garrison Brooks, Sterling Manley, and Brandon Huffman all had good moments during the non-conference season, but things didn’t look good at all when ACC play started. Something had to change, and Roy Williams brought that change.

Roy Williams started the small lineup for the first time on January 9th against Boston College. Luke Maye moved to the five, Cameron Johnson to the four, followed by Theo Pinson, Kenny Williams, and Joel Berry II. The result was a 30-point victory against the Eagles, and things began to look a bit more promising for the season. The game plan had changed, and UNC was now playing a style that Roy Williams has avoided playing most of his career.

This didn’t, however, put an end to all of the problems: Jalek Felton was suspended from the university due to an unknown issue, meaning Joel Berry was the one lone point guard on scholarship left on the roster. For some coaches, this is a nightmare situation. For Roy Williams, he once again had to reach into his unconventional bag of tricks and play Theo Pinson as a point guard. Seventh Woods came back shortly after from his injury to help relieve the senior point guard. Theo has done such a good job at facilitating, however, that Roy now makes sure he has the ball in his hands more often. To be quite honest: we could do a whole other piece on the amazing job Roy Williams has done with Theo Pinson alone. Pinson has gotten better and better during his four years at UNC, and is now arguably the most important key to this team getting deep into the tournament.

Finally, the defense. This year’s defense went through some struggles this year to say the least. Virginia Tech, NC State, and Clemson took turns making UNC look silly from three-point land, and this isn’t even counting the other games UNC lost. Roy Williams finally decided a change had to be made, and switched the scheme from a 22 defense to a 21 defense.

For an explanation of what the difference between the two is, here is how Joel Berry explained it when he spoke with Inside Carolina earlier this month:

“The 22 is you’re just trying to deny the ball so the guy won’t get it, and if somebody ends up driving, you’ve got to help in, and then if they try to kick it back out, you’ve got to try to get back out and close out for a three,” senior guard Joel Berry said following UNC’s 83-66 win on Monday. “That’s a little tough. So now in 21, you’re just sitting in the gaps. It just messes with the defense a little bit, but it gives us a chance to where we don’t have go from out to in to out. We’re just going from in to out and that simplifies everything.”

The result has been a six-game winning streak since the scheme was implemented. Most teams have taken fewer three-point attempts, and have had lower success rates making shots from the perimeter. In fact, the only team two teams that have shot at a 40+% clip are NC State and Louisville. This change has been huge for the Heels, and it will be interesting to see if the scheme continues to suppress shooters as the team enters postseason play.

I do want to make one thing perfectly clear: I’m not saying Roy Williams should 100% be crowned the ACC Coach of the Year. There are other coaches that make strong cases for themselves, such as Virginia’s Tony Bennett, Clemson’s Brad Brownell, and NC State’s Kevin Keatts. However, what Roy Williams has managed to do with this team coming off of back-to-back National Championship appearances, with a less-than-ideal roster for how Roy Williams likes to play, injuries, suspensions, bad execution of the 22 defense, etc., is hard to ignore. He has made as strong of a case to win the award as any other coach in the conference. UNC even has a chance to lock up a double-bye in the ACC Tournament, which is huge considering they started conference play 1-3.

It’s time that America stops sleeping on Roy Williams, and it’s time that we give him the recognition that he deserves. The ACC Coach of the Year award would be a great start in making that happen.