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Mike Lopresti | | February 7, 2016

North Carolina basketball: Roy Williams searches for answers after Notre Dame loss

  Williams' Tar Heels held a nine-point halftime lead but ultimately fell to Notre Dame.

 SOUTH BEND, Ind. – This is how Saturday ended for Roy Williams, having to work his way to his locker room, as Notre Dame’s crowd stormed the court around him. An unhappy coach in a sea of screaming and reveling Irish.

It was another loss for used-to-be No. 1 North Carolina, this one perhaps most disturbing of all. Later, as Williams reeled off the statistical sins of his Tar Heels, he had this to say . . . .

Wait. We’re getting ahead of ourselves. This is a day with Roy Williams, to show just how complicated his recent road has been. So we’ll start at noon.

The North Carolina team bus is waiting, eventually headed for the shootaround for that night’s game against Notre Dame. Williams sits at a hotel lobby table. He turned 65 last summer, so no wonder he is talking about what the years can do to a man.

His knees are a mess. He has lost some of his dearest friends, Dean Smith among them. One funeral after another. He had a cancer scare himself just three years ago. And then there have been the storm clouds over North Carolina from an academic scandal, the questions and the doubts and the investigations—none of which have found anything in his closet.

``It’s been the hardest three years of my life,’’ he is saying.

The Tar Heels are coming off a Monday loss at Louisville, which included 34.5 percent shooting, and a 3-for-17 misfire from the 3-point line, continuing an awful recent slump. At the moment they own the worst 3-point shooting number in school history, with star Marcus Paige 5-for-36. But they also have the best assist-to-turnover ratio in memory, a double-double machine in Brice Johnson, and 19 wins.

``For 17 games we led the ACC in field goal percentage, top 10 in the country, and all of a sudden, we can’t throw it in the ocean,’’ Williams says. ``They’re great kids. Sometimes they’re too nice.’’

Have that problem often?

``Not too many times.’’

This is a special anniversary season for Williams. He has to think a moment to realize which one. Twenty-five years ago, he led Kansas to the Final Four in his third season as a head coach. His coming out party.

He tells the story of the pre-season NIT the year before, when lightly regarded Kansas was sent to Baton Rouge to be fodder for LSU and Shaquille O’Neal. The ESPN idea, of course, was to get LSU and O’Neal to New York for the semis.

Except, Kansas won. ``At the banquet (before the semis in New York), they introduced me as Ron Williams,’’ he said. ``I told my kids, `Guys, don’t worry about it, we’re going to play so dadgum well that they’ll know who we are when we leave New York City.’’

The Jayhawks upset eventual national champion UNLV and won that NIT. Seven Final Fours and two national championships have come from that. No banquet emcee ever got his name wrong again.

But the last Final Four was seven years ago, and there have been dark days in the interim. The scandal haunts him still. It hurt his pride, and hurt his recruiting. ``We had 23 or 24 McDonald’s All-Americans the first 10 years,’’ he says. ``The last couple of years, I’ve gotten just about shut out.’’

Several factors might have played into that, not just lousy publicity. But the perception stain tormented Williams most, and does yet; the images of so many wondering if he would survive.

``Sometimes, I feel like I’ve been out on a limb by myself,’’ he says. ``The negative thing people said about our program has really been hard on me because that hurts me down to my soul.

I think sometimes I have the thinnest skin in the world, because the slightest person I don’t even know can say something negative, and it really bothers me. But this has been a pretty big thing. The last three years, I’ve felt like I’ve aged 25 years.

``But I’ve been investigated five times in the last three years, and nobody’s ever said Roy Williams did anything wrong. Darn right, I’m proud of that.’’

So he has trudged on, nicked here, bruised there, still in the place he wants to be, which is on the court, teaching basketball. He aches to get back to the Final Four, but not to be possessed by it.

"Two of the greatest moments of my life,’’ he says of his championships. ``But I’ve shot 69 five times, and that was pretty damn good, too. I have two children and two grandchildren and there’s nothing better than that, so I think I look at it fairly clearly, too.’’

MORE: College basketball hub

As for this team’s prognosis  . . .

 ``No question we have to shoot the ball batter. But I want to see the mental toughness get so much better.’’

Six hours later, Williams sits on the bench, watching the Tar Heels warm up. Many coaches don’t appear until just a couple of minutes before tipoff, making a dramatic entrance. Williams routinely is at the bench early. Rare.

But then, he has some numbers that pretty rare, too.

Such as being ranked No. 1 or No. 2 in 17 different seasons. Or never failing to win at least one NCAA Tournament game in all 25 March appearances. Or being the only coach in history with 350 victories at two different schools.

``I’ve always tried to be consistent in my own life, and also consistent in my coaching,’’ he said earlier in the day. ``My bad years have killed me, but luckily we haven’t had many bad years.

``I look back on journey, not as much saying I’m proud of what we’ve done, but just how much fun I’ve had.’’

Three hours later, Notre Dame wins 80-76, thanks to numbers such as 23 second chance points, a 31-16 free throw edge, 50 points in the second half and  19-0 gap in points off turnovers. So never mind Page’s rediscovered shooting, with five 3-pointers. To Williams, all those stats are evidentiary exhibits of being outscrapped. Something is amiss with Carolina’s purpose.

``It can help me personally,’’ Paige says in the locker room of his hot shooting night. ``But until we find a combination of five guys that can step up and defend, it doesn’t matter.

``Whether it’s five point guards or five centers, we’ve just got to find five guys ready to compete for the whole game. It’s not the end of the world, but we need some urgency about us.

There should be some urgency about us right now.’’

Let us return, then, to where we began, Williams sitting grimly in his press conference.

``I’ve got to do a lot better job of getting my club to play with a lot more intensity than they did,’’ he says, the earlier wishes for more mental toughness still unfulfilled.

``I’ve got a wonderful bunch of kids, but we have to decide that we want to compete when it’s tough, not just when it’s easy. The world’s not going to come to an end, but right now, I’m extremely frustrated.’’

In a season with no dominant teams, a two-loss week is to be absorbed and moved past. Nobody goes pain-free for long. Oklahoma also went down Saturday. North Carolina can still make a loud noise, but the Tar Heels will require more grit than they have shown lately. Given the recent past, just imagine what a March run would mean to their coach.

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