This North Carolina basketball team isn't close to the best Roy Williams has coached, and there is strong evidence to suggest it can advance only so far once March Madness commences.
But is Ol' Roy pulling off the best coaching job of his storied career just to get the Tar Heels in the NCAA tournament conversation?
The simple and surprising answer is yes.
Williams won national championships at North Carolina in 2005 and 2009, but those teams were loaded with talented and experienced players. That has been the case nearly every time Roy has rolled out the basketballs at the beginning of a season since he became a head coach at Kansas in 1988.
This undermanned 2013-14 edition of the Tar Heels will be hard pressed to reach the Sweet 16. But after all they've been through—after starting the Atlantic Coast Conference season with a 1-4 record, and with such obvious and potentially debilitating deficiencies as horrendous free-throw shooting—a strong run in the ACC tournament and a trip to the Sweet 16 in the NCAAs would be a tremendous success.
Why? Isn't the bar for achievement in any North Carolina season already set at Final Four or bust, with an ACC championship to boot?
This season, it just isn't that simple.
Williams has taken his North Carolina and Kansas teams over the years to seven Final Fours. Along with Louisville's Rick Pitino, who also coached at Providence and Kentucky, Williams is one of only two coaches in NCAA history to have led two different programs to at least three Final Fours each.
The guy obviously knows what he is doing. Like all coaches, he's almost always prepared for anything, down to the tiniest detail.
But nothing could have prepared him for what happened before this season even started.
The 2012-13 Tar Heels finished their somewhat indifferent season with a 25-11 record after an embarrassing loss to Williams' old team, Kansas, in the round of 32 in last year's NCAA tournament. Earlier, they made the ACC tournament championship but lost to Miami despite 28 points from P.J. Hairston.
At least Hairston would be coming back for this season. Or so Williams thought.
Hairston then embarked on a summer that would haunt him and the North Carolina program. Soon the NCAA was investigating his use of rental cars linked to Durham-based party promoter and convicted felon Haydn "Fats" Thomas, as well as guard Leslie McDonald's alleged acceptance of nearly $2,000 in "improper benefits."
It led to what were at first termed indefinite suspensions of Hairston, the Heels' top returning scorer, and McDonald—and threw the entire team into a state of emotional disarray that soon carried over to the court.
As Hairston and McDonald sat on the bench in street clothes, awaiting what they and Williams hoped would be their dual triumphant return, the season began.
Ranked No. 12 in the nation in the preseason, the Tar Heels were maddeningly inconsistent in the non-conference portion of their schedule, losing to Belmont and Alabama-Birmingham, but beating the likes of Louisville and Michigan State, then ranked No. 1 in the nation, on the road.
According to B/R's Jason King, "coach Roy Williams warned [Hairston] that he’d have to miss some games, but both felt good about Hairston’s chances of eventually being reinstated." But then the NCAA and the school reinstated McDonald after nine games, while Hairston remained sidelined.
Hairston's alleged transgressions were far more serious, and were complicated by the fact that he also was cited for speeding and reckless driving after the earlier investigation into the rental cars had been launched. After the NCAA finally ruled Hairston ineligible for the season, the school elected not to seek his reinstatement.
The NCAA's ruling on Hairston came down on Dec. 18, just hours before North Carolina's game against Texas. The Heels lost that night. They won their next three, but then opened the ACC season by losing four of their first five contests.
The season seemed to be slipping away amid a barrage of missed shots, blown defensive assignments and generally sloppy play uncharacteristic of Williams' teams.
Playing with only one scholarship senior, McDonald, Williams had to rally his players and change his usual ways of thinking. He had to coach more than ever, adjusting what he did to the limitations of his players.
Williams, normally a staunch proponent of the relentless fast break on offense and aggressive man-to-man defense, slowed games down on offense and introduced a 1-3-1 zone defense that, when employed for certain stretches of games, seemed to confuse opponents.
The Heels began winning ugly, but often. They enter this Saturday's regular-season finale showdown at Duke on a 12-game winning streak that has improved their overall record to 23-7.
"I said [recently] that to have a really good year, you've got to win some games ugly. I'm tired of winning games ugly," Williams told reporters after the latest victory, Monday's 63-61 win over Notre Dame.
Close games are always going to be a problem for this team. Through 29 games, the Tar Heels are shooting 62.6 percent from the free-throw line. That ranks 339th out of the 345 Division I men's basketball programs in the land, according to NCAA.com—just behind UC-Irvine and Akron and just ahead of Marshall and Southern University.
This UNC team isn't very tall and lacks star power. Leading scorer Marcus Paige, for instance, scored 35 in a win over North Carolina State on Feb. 26, but then failed to reach double figures in his next two games. Second-leading scorer James Michael McAdoo, who gets to the foul line as much as any player in the ACC but makes only 53 percent of his free throws, often has Williams ecstatic one moment and on the verge of exploding the next.
Despite his faults, McAdoo plays hard, as does the rest of the team. They try to play together and never quit.
The job Williams has done this year with talent that is almost mediocre by UNC standards actually seems remarkable.
Maybe it will even make his college basketball coaching peers start to appreciate Ol' Roy a little more. In a CBSSports.com poll "of nearly 100 coaches" conducted in August 2012, Williams' peers named him the most overrated coach in the country with 23 percent of the vote.
Really? Since coming to North Carolina, the guy is 7-0 against Michigan State's Tom Izzo, who is considered one of the game's best coaches.
Williams also has been criticized for his 10-12 record against ACC archrival Duke and coach Mike Krzyzewski, but think about that. There is no shame in going nearly .500 in this heated rivalry.
The Heels also won this season's only meeting thus far largely because Coach K and his players didn't adjust quickly enough or well enough to Williams' decision to switch to the 1-3-1 zone.
The fact is, few (if any) of the coaches who participated in that 2012 poll could have coaxed 20-plus wins out of Williams' current North Carolina crew.
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