NCAA.com’s Mike Lopresti is on the road, taking in seven games among nine teams throughout the heart of ACC country.
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Roy Williams looked tired. This was eight hours before North Carolina would be overpowered by Virginia on Monday night, and he sat in his office talking about the ordeal of the previous months. It had worn on him.
You could see it in the eyes.
The Super Bowl was mentioned. Wasn’t everyone talking about that on Monday? “I watched the Jets beat the Colts in 1969 and that was the last time I watched an entire Super Bowl, until last night,” he said, explaining that he had been fascinated by the coaching matchup, and a story he had read about Seattle’s Richard Sherman. “It made me stay up two hours longer, finishing doing the tape study on Virginia.”
|LOPRESTI ROAD TRIP|
|From Pittsburgh to Charlottesville, Virginia|
|Virginia vs. North Carolina: No rest for the weary|
Maybe that’s one reason for the weariness.
Also, the Tar Heels had blown an 18-point lead and lost in overtime Saturday at Louisville. That sort of thing can eat at a coach, but Virginia was here 48 hours later with a 19-1 record. No time to dwell on the past.
There never seldom is in the expanded ACC. Williams, who loves golf nearly as much as beating Duke, used the back nine at Augusta National as an analogy. “You finish with No. 10, and then you’re looking at No. 11. Then you’re looking at No. 12. “It’s a marathon, but it’s also a survival test.”
Maybe that’s a second reason for the weariness.
There’s a third, and it’s a biggie: The unsavory headlines that came one after another, describing the academic scandal at North Carolina involving bogus classes for swaths of students, including several basketball players. The most recent investigation found that Williams was not aware of what was going on, but others have suggested he should have known. Whatever one believes, anyone can see the toll taken.
“There’s no question that the last two years have been the hardest two years of my coaching career, with the stuff going on we’re not proud of, with the stuff going on that has made people look at me differently,” he said. “That has hurt. It’s been harder because every time I turn around, it feels like somebody is hitting me between the eyes with something else.”
He has been a coach in some capacity for 41 years. “A lot of national anthems” he said. But he went back further, to his first year here as a student, 235 miles away from home in Asheville, to try to explain what North Carolina has meant to him, and how far he has come. “When I went home for the first time, I hitchhiked. When I came back, I hitchhiked. That’s the way I came back and forth my freshman year because we had no car in the family. This has hurt, because I love this place. I’ve been hurt by some of the mistakes we’ve made. This basketball office had nothing to do with those mistakes, but we’re paying a tremendous price for it.”
So has the actual coaching now become a relief? An escape? A chance to get away from the noise?
“All of those,” he said. “I can still walk on the court and feel like I did my first year as a head coach.”
The past is real here. Two doors down from the Dean Smith Center — can Smith really be retired 18 years? — is the Carolina Basketball Museum, where among other things, you can find the first film projector Smith used, and Williams’ scouting report to his players for the 2005 national championship game against Illinois, and the high school recruiting questionnaire filled out by Michael Jordan.
History. History. History. Nearly all of it in blue. The first standing ovation Monday night would be when it was announced old Tar Heel Billy Cunningham was in the house.
On the court, the final score was North Carolina 93, Milligan 48. Wait a minute. That was the Tar Heels’ junior varsity game. As far as anyone here knows, North Carolina is the only Power 5 school in the nation with a JV team, which gives other students a chance to play and assistants a chance to hone their skills running a game. Williams coached eight JV seasons when he was a Smith assistant.
After that prelim, it was two teams trying to recover from weekend flame-outs. Together, North Carolina and Virginia had blown a 29-point lead in Saturday games. How a team reacts to defeat is now a major theme in the ACC.
North Carolina started sprightly enough but its attack crumbled against Virginia’s defense — as most teams not named Duke have done. The Tar Heels led 33-32 at halftime but managed only 15 points in the first 16.5 minutes of the second half, and the Cavaliers rolled 75-64. Virginia, 20-1, seemed revived well enough from the Duke loss.
“I think we got back to the mentality we needed,” Tony Bennett said afterward. “Our way, it’s a blue collar way, it’s a fighting way.”
What had happened against Duke? Well, ESPN College GameDay was at Charlottesville to pay homage to Virginia’s 19-0 record. Bennett sensed a downside to such applause.
“It was a bit intoxicating. It was not my cup of tea, I’ll be honest with you,” he said. “It’s great for our program, great for our fans. Very grateful for all the attention. But none of that stuff matters.”
What matters is grinding down opponents, which requires focus and will. So even though the Sunday between two heavy games figured to be leisurely practice, Bennett made it far different, to get the edge back.
“That’s the challenge always when a lot of attention starts flowing your way, and everybody’s patting you on the back and telling you how wonderful you are,” he said. “That’s fool’s gold.”
— Roy Williams
Someone in Bennett’s press conference suggested that Virginia might not have gotten its national due for the 19-0 start. “You should have been there for College GameDay,” he said. “There was a lot of due coming our way there.”
So the Cavaliers were back to business Monday, and North Carolina happened to be in the way. “I’m disappointed in our sense of urgency and I’m disappointed that we gave in,” Williams said.
The Tar Heels are 17-6 but have struggled against good teams. Star guard Marcus Paige, having seen what Virginia can do with its purposeful cohesion, said, “We’re trying to figure out how to do that. We have talent. We have pieces. But if you don’t have five guys buying in every possession … It sounds cliché and that’s boring talk for the media. It’ not anything juicy for you guys, but it’s the truth.”
Earlier Monday, Williams had talked about watching Seattle’s disastrous last play in the Super Bowl, which put Pete Carroll in the crosshairs of every talk show in America. When Williams saw the play from his easy chair, he reacted as a coach, not a fan.
“My first response was, ‘Oh my gosh, they’re going to kill him for that play call,'” he said.
It is sometimes hard, being the man in charge. Just look at Roy Williams’ eyes.