When the NCAA men’s basketball tournament was officially canceled on March 12 because of the coronavirus pandemic, it marked the end of one of the most unpredictable — and wide-open — seasons in recent memory. We saw a record number of teams grab the top spot in the Associated Press rankings in the first few weeks of the season, and by season’s end, three of the top 10 teams in Ken Pomeroy’s final efficiency rankings — Baylor, San Diego State and Dayton — were relative newcomers; two of them had only had one previous top-10 season since 2002, and Dayton hadn’t had any.
The season was aberrant in another sense, too. It was the first losing season in the Hall of Fame career of North Carolina coach Roy Williams, and it would have been only the third time a Williams-coached team had missed the Big Dance.1 Williams, who turns 70 on Saturday, is fourth all-time in NCAA Division I wins (885), trailing only Bob Knight (899) and fellow ACC septuagenarians Jim Boeheim (1,065)2 and Mike Krzyzewski (1,157). He’s already passed his mentor and idol, the legendary Dean Smith, in wins and NCAA championships (three to two), and he’s the only coach to have won 400 games at two different schools.
In 2019-20, however, those records seemed a distant memory. Though they were ranked No. 9 in the preseason, the Tar Heels quickly fell from national relevance after dropping four straight in December, including a home loss to lowly Wofford, and continued their slide into January with five straight defeats to start the new year. It was a far cry from “the best daggum bath [he’d] ever had with his clothes on,” as “Ol’ Roy” quipped after he was doused with ice water after the Tar Heels reached the 2017 Final Four. The typically folksy Williams didn’t mince words.
This crew is “the least gifted team I’ve ever coached in the time that I’ve been back here,” Williams said after Georgia Tech thumped Carolina 96-83 at the Dean E. Smith Center.
“He should probably fire me, it probably wouldn’t be a bad idea,” Williams said of UNC athletic director Bubba Cunningham after the Tar Heels blew a late 10-point lead to Clemson, again at home.
Needless to say, last year’s Carolina team was hardly the vintage edition that observers have come to expect in Chapel Hill, where Williams built one of Division I’s most consistent programs, not only in terms of year-in, year-out performance, but also in its steady approach amid countless changes to the sport.
Under Williams, the Tar Heels have always looked to score early in the shot clock — his UNC teams have played one of the fastest tempos in the country, with all but two of his 17 squads ranking in the top 50 of KenPom’s adjusted tempo. If they don’t get a quick score in transition, they still typically look to score inside first, relying on skilled big men and crisp passing to execute the vaunted secondary break that Williams inherited from Smith. And they’ve crashed the offensive glass — all but one of his Carolina teams have ranked in the top 25 in offensive rebounding percentage.
Perhaps as a consequence of their inside-first approach, the Tar Heels have relied less on long-distance shooting than most teams. Under Williams, UNC teams have only once ranked in the top 200 in 3-point shooting frequency (No. 199 in 2006), and they’ve ranked 349th (2014) and 350th (2015) out of 351 in that metric. Even Williams’s two best outside shooting teams by 3-point percentage, the 2005 and 2009 teams, didn’t take many shots from downtown; they ranked 230th and 300th, respectively, in 3-point attempt rate, even though they drilled threes at clips of 40.3 and 38.5 percent. If that sounds like coaching malpractice by today’s standards, consider that both of those teams were kings of the Big Dance.
But perhaps more remarkable than Williams’s consistent strategy — and the fruits it has borne — is its relative novelty, especially as it relates to pace. Since the 2003-04 season, just six teams have finished in the top 10 of both overall efficiency margin and tempo; every single one of those teams was a Williams-led Carolina squad. During Williams’s tenure, Carolina has finished in the top 10 in overall adjusted efficiency margin 11 times, and it has played at the fastest tempo among the top 10 nine of those times. You don’t have to run at every opportunity to win in college basketball3 — 12 of the last 13 non-UNC men’s national champions have sported adjusted tempos that ranked 100 or below — but Williams insists on doing it anyway.
Carolina’s consistent predilection for offensive rebounding and 2-pointers also belie a sport-wide trend away from both those strategies. From 2004 to 2020, the median offensive-rebounding rate across men’s college basketball crept down from 32.1 to 27.9 percent, and the share of field goal attempts shot from 2-point range fell from 67.3 to 62.5 percent. Though those shifts explain each other to some extent — as teams are more spread out on offense, they’re less likely to be in a position to crash the glass — they haven’t led to a revolution in the Tar Heel offense. Sure, in 2018-19, Carolina’s last season of national relevance, the Heels grabbed 35.3 percent of available misses and 64.2 percent of their field goal attempts were 2-pointers, lower figures than they’ve typically produced under Williams. But they still ranked near the top in offensive rebounding percentage (16th) and near the bottom (253rd) in 3-point field goal rate.
And of course, in a sport where recruiting is arguably the most important aspect of building a team, Williams has consistently done more with less talent than his competitors. His recruiting classes at UNC have an average ranking of 17.6th in Division I, according to 247sports.com’s team rankings. Compare that with three other traditional “blue bloods,” Duke, Kentucky and Kansas, whose average rankings in that time have been 12.1, 4.8 and 14.1. Since Williams returned to Chapel Hill in 2003, UNC has amassed more NCAA titles, Final Fours and tournament wins than any of those programs, all while not radically changing its ethos of building its most successful teams around players who had stayed multiple years.
After the “one-and-done” era kicked off in 2006, some coaches, like Kentucky’s John Calipari, became known for building their teams around highly touted recruits that otherwise would have gone straight from college to the pros, while others, like Duke’s Krzyzewski, gradually changed course to make those players the focal point of their teams. Williams didn’t. Williams had just four one-and-done players from 2006 through 2019, compared to the 17 of his rival just up Highway 15-501. And those players on Williams’s teams haven’t played the same kind of starring roles as recent top freshmen on Coach K’s teams; none led the team in scoring, and only two (Brandan Wright and Coby White) started for UNC.
Though North Carolina’s recruiting malaise from 2014 to 2017, when the average UNC recruiting class ranking was 28.3, could be attributed to the academic scandal that cast a pall over the men’s basketball team, Williams arguably benefited from largely landing the players who would stay multiple years and anchor championship-caliber teams. Only one of Carolina’s five Final Four appearances under Williams has involved a top-10 freshman recruiting class (2005, with the No. 10 class in the country). For every Zion Williamson or Andrew Wiggins who chose another school, he got a Marcus Paige or Joel Berry who learned the North Carolina system over four years and helped guide their teams deep into the NCAA tournament. And in March, there’s no better coach than Ol’ Roy: According to Bart Torvik’s coach ratings, his performance against KenPom expectations is the best in college basketball since he arrived in Chapel Hill.
Williams has bucked the trends over the years, whether it’s in stubbornly sticking to his offensive game plan, refusing to call timeouts or succeeding with lower-ranked recruiting classes and more experienced players than his blue-blood counterparts. Sticking to his guns doesn’t always turn out in his favor: He might not have won the adulation of his contemporaries, nor will he (in his mind) ever eclipse the greatness of his mentor Smith. And it’s possible that his intransigence caught up with him in a disastrous 2019-20 season that the baby-blue fan base hopes to soon forget.
But, daggum it, why would Roy change now?