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UNC Basketball: This season was Roy Williams’ best

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The achievement of this team in the face of obstacles was second to none.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-North Carolina vs Lipscomb Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

I remember how rough 2003 was. Fans were just coming off the pain of 8-20, and seeing a team with a talented recruiting class flame out in the NIT was just too much to bear for fans coming off Dean Smith’s legacy. When it got out how the players and coach Matt Doherty weren’t getting along, it was the final straw.

Under that chaos, Roy Williams returned to the school he loved.

I think it’s fair to say that if you are attending school in Chapel Hill now or just got your diploma, you’ve known nothing but success in your fandom of UNC basketball. That Williams was able to rebuild this program after such chaos to this day doesn’t get enough credit, mostly because the guy in charge doesn’t seek it. Three national titles, five Final Fours, fourteen NCAA Tournament appearances of a possible fifteen, three ACC Tournament titles, and eight first place finishes in the ACC, all while having another Hall of Fame coach and dominant program a few miles down the road and playing in the toughest conference in the country. How many programs would kill for half of that?

With all that, I’ll say this: 2017-2018 was the best coaching job Roy Williams has done since taking over as head coach at UNC. This despite the fact that he added nothing to those numbers above, save the NCAA Tournament appearance.

Yesterday, Jake laid out the case for how the UNC team overachieved. For further proof, just examine these facts:

  • No one this season averaged more than 20 points a game. Joel Berry was the leader at 17.1
  • Five players averaged more than 29 minutes a game
  • Only one player (Luke Maye) averaged more than 10 rebounds a game. He had 10.1
  • Maye was also the leader in blocks, with 38. Carolina played 37 games
  • The leader in assists (Theo Pinson) wasn’t the primary ballhandler
  • Only two more players (Garrison Brooks and Sterling Manley) averaged double digit minutes
  • The player with the most 3 point makes this season, Berry, averaged 3 makes a game.
  • The draft ceiling for the two UNC seniors is the second round.

So, looking at this, would you have thought that this team could have ended up with a third place finish in the conference, a runner-up finish in the ACC Tournament, and a two seed in the NCAA Tournament? Yet, they not only did, they did it so well to where none of these results were a surprise by the time the season was done.

The moment you try to say anything about this to Williams, he will likely defer to Theo Pinson and Joel Berry II, as well as the rest of the team for continuing to grind. This is not an easy thing to do after winning a title, especially one that was so satisfying after the 2016 result. But that title is where his coaching job for this season begins.

It’s easy to forget in the haze of the end of the season, but once Justin Jackson and Tony Bradley declared for the NBA draft it was very clear that Carolina was going to be staring at some huge holes for the ‘17-’18 starting lineup. One important piece to that rebuild was Kevin Knox, who Roy went after hard right after the title. Sadly, he chose a darker shade of blue (and got one round further) and it created a fair amount of panic going into the season. At the time there were several good players coming in with Jalek Felton, Brandon Huffman, Sterling Manley, and Andrew Platek. All were expected to be long-term projects except Felton, and there were still some holes that needed to be filled.

Then fortune interceded and Garrison Brooks was released from his LOI from Mississippi State. With just about every other program out of places to put him, Williams was able to rekindle the relationship with the Lafayette, AL product, and he quickly joined the class. He was a huge get, a highly recruited four-star big man who fell in love with Chapel Hill and ended up starting in his first game. Then, another break when Cameron Johnson decided he wanted to leave Pittsburgh. Again, Carolina was in a position of being the highest profile program that had a place for him, and Williams was able to play the situation perfectly to land the grad transfer.

Let’s also not forget that all of this occurred under the cloud of the NCAA investigation. That cloud wasn’t lifted until Late Night with Roy, meaning this entire class, but especially Brooks and Johnson, took a leap of faith that there would be no punishments enforced for the ‘17-’18 season. That likely doesn’t happen without some serious work by Williams.

Once the dust settled it was clear this team was going to be one that went against the method Williams preferred. The size was going to be young, any experience there left with Bradley, meaning Carolina was going to have to rely on permitter play. To add to this difficulty, Williams had built a schedule that was going to be the toughest in the country, and every one of those teams was going to look to take down the national champions. Things weren’t going to be any easier when both Johnson and Berry were going to start the season on the shelf due to various injuries.

Ah, yes, the lineup. You want to know how many games that Williams had every player available? Zero. It started with Berry and Johnson, Berry only missed one game, but Johnson didn’t return until the home loss against Wofford. By that point, Seventh Woods was out of the lineup with his foot injury, and by the time he was back, Jalek Felton had been kicked out of UNC. So not only were you always short a player or two, you also had difficulty backing up the most important position on the team: point guard.

Yet, except for the home loss to Wofford, the team rolled along like nothing was wrong. They entered ACC season with only two losses, and had wins against Tennessee, Michigan, Davidson, and Ohio State to their name. All while starting Roy’s preferred set up of a big man in the post in Garrison Brooks. By the time Carolina stumbled the start of their ACC season, it was more of a surprise than it should have been. Staring at a 1-3 start in the league, Williams made his next big adjustment in moving Brooks to the bench and starting the “Death Lineup” that had Johnson playing the four and Luke Maye playing the five.

The move worked well for a while, but then another stumble with a three game losing streak cast some serious doubt over the future of the season. For the first time, fans realized the limitations of the current squad and considered that this may be a 2013-style team, lucky to get an eight seed. At that point, Williams made his next big move, adjusting the defense to focus on trying to stop teams from killing Carolina from the three point line. This is no small feat, to change a defensive scheme halfway into the conference season, but it was necessary to do as teams were lighting up Carolina at will from beyond the arc.

The next time Williams adjusted? The first matchup against Duke. We’ll have more on that next week, but Williams coached a masterful game plan of luring K into playing multiple bigs, allowing Carolina to run at will on the Devils. It was around this time that Williams also turned Pinson into a secondary ball handler and essentially second point guard on the floor. The move built up Theo’s confidence, allowing him to build up some draft buzz for the end of the year.

This is on top of the normal things that Williams does during a season: playing a game in November different than he plays in January different than he plays in the ACC Tournament different than he plays in the NCAA Tournament. Nowhere was this more evident than the Clemson loss, where Theo Pinson went down early and never returned. The game resulted in a loss that would bite the team down the road, but Williams was not going to risk the long-term health of a player for a game in January.

The team needed one win at the end to allow them to take Wednesday of the ACC Tournament off, but couldn’t get it thanks to a miracle shot on Senior Night and the collapse in Durham. Again, signs were there that the season was going to go down in flames as the Heels limped into the ACC Tournament as the sixth seed despite a tie for third. The went in with the goal of trying to get the second ACC place in Charlotte, and the only way they’d get there is winning against Syracuse, Miami, and Duke.

They won each game. I’m still not completely sure how, but they won each game. When it came time for the title game, it was clear the team was out of gas and Roy didn’t push them any further since it wouldn’t have any other benefit.

We all know how the season ended, but in a tournament where the first sixteen seed beat a one seed, two nine seeds and an eleven seed played for a Final Four, and the team that beat Carolina had a perfect setup to do so, it’s tough to be too upset. There’s only so much coaching you can do when shots don’t fall.

I’m not trying to diminish the coaching job that Williams did last year, but considering you had two NBA first round picks playing, and had two others who made the G-League, one of whom (Hicks) is now looking at being a contributor for the main squad, it’s clear that Williams had a lot of talent on that squad. It was almost as if this team made up for all of their relative good fortune last year by having to deal with problem after problem this year. In retrospect, this squad easily could have fallen to the 2010 or 2013 levels, and who would have blamed them? The players deserve a ton of credit, but they don’t get there without the man on the bench.

I don’t know how much longer Roy Williams wants to do this. He could retire tomorrow and have a resume that would list him as one of the greats in college basketball history. That said, this season shows that he’s still at the top of his game, and with the cloud of the NCAA behind him, it’s completely possible we are about to see a coaching renaissance.

Enjoy it while you can. Take it from someone who remembers 2001-2003, it doesn’t take long for it all to go away.

This article was updated to reflect Carolina’s record would have been 1-3 in conference with a loss and not 0-3.