- The Washington Times - Friday, February 13, 2004

Roy Williams led his teams to the Final Four the past two years. And this season’s North Carolina team resembles Williams’ successful teams at Kansas — at least on one end of the court.

The offense suggests this is a typical Williams group. The 14th-ranked Tar Heels are third in the nation in scoring at 85.8 points, nearly 14 more than a year ago under Matt Doherty. North Carolina features a high-speed attack that excels in transition and converts turnovers into easy scores, but the defense has been detrimental to the cause.

The Tar Heels surrender an ACC-worst 76.8 points, which could be explained in part by their uptempo offense creating more possessions for opponents. The alarming stat? UNC is last in the nine-team conference in field goal percentage defense, yielding an unsightly 45.1 percent.

“We are doing the same defensive drills that I have done for a long time,” said Williams, whose team allowed Georgia Tech to shoot 63 percent in the second half of the Yellow Jackets’ 88-77 win Tuesday. “And two years ago, our club led the entire nation in defensive field goal percentage at 37.8 percent. … I think it’s the effort and the intensity — that is the whole thing for us.”

It has been a struggle for Williams to teach his players to adapt to his defensive style and have faith in the system. He believes the Tar Heels, who play host to Maryland tomorrow, are still overcoming a trust issue between coaches and players after last season, which ended with an uprising by the players and Doherty’s forced resignation.

The defense allowed last-place Clemson to shoot 55.6 percent, including 11 of 13 3-pointers (84.6 percent), in an upset of the Tar Heels 81-72 two weeks ago. North Carolina, which has upset then-No.1 Connecticut, won at 20th-ranked Wake Forest 79-73 last week despite allowing the Demon Deacons to shoot 44.6 percent.

North Carolina is eighth in the conference in 3-point defense at 36.1 percent, ahead of only Maryland.

“On the periphery, everybody has [bought into the system],” said Williams, who took over at Kansas in 1988 after Larry Brown led the Jayhawks to the national title. “But until you really believe in something at times of adversity, you are going to revert back. … It keeps going back to a trust thing. It’s a totally different situation than I walked into 16 years ago at Kansas. I think you can push people who have had success a lot more than those who haven’t.”

The Tar Heels (14-7, 4-6 ACC) should return to the NCAA tournament for the first time in three years after losing 36 games the past two seasons.

Williams has criticized this team’s mental focus and resulting inconsistency, particularly on defense. His players often bite on a pump-fake and are regularly caught out of position for stops and box-outs. North Carolina has lost three of its past four and six of its last 12 games.

“We haven’t taken those drills and formed a habit,” Williams said of the defensive drills he repeats in “90 percent” of team practices. “We have had teams in the past that have built those habits a lot quicker.”

The coach tries to be patient with his young team, which starts two juniors and three sophomores. He is teaching the whole team new concepts rather than merely several freshmen.

The Tar Heels feature a star-studded lineup that includes the league’s leading scorer, Rashad McCants (19.6); leading rebounder, Sean May (10.1); and assist leader, Raymond Felton (7.6). But it is after those players the Tar Heels differ from a traditional Williams team.

“More than anything, they have been coming up short one rebounder and one defender in the middle that would make the team more physical,” CBS analyst Billy Packer said. “That is what they are missing, which would make them a Final Four-type team. They are one man short. One guy with size would allow May to play power forward instead of center.”

Kansas had versatile big men Drew Gooden and Nick Collison on its 2001-02 team, which lost to Maryland in the national semifinals. Last season Collison and Jeff Graves led a similarly deep frontline to the national title game.

These Tar Heels essentially start three guards: Felton, McCants and Melvin Scott. Forward Jawad Williams is more of an outside player and May the lone inside presence. Opponents usually attack May, hoping to get him in foul trouble and opening up the lane.

“Williams inherited a lot of talented guys who may have thought they were more talented than they are,” said Packer, noting that Felton, McCants, Williams and May were McDonald’s All-Americans. “They have depth and versatility with everything but one position. That would allow them to apply more pressure defensively and push the ball upcourt. Maybe they can work a trade with Maryland for a big man.”

North Carolina’s offense often goes the way of enigmatic McCants, who has been on a hot streak lately and is averaging 22 points in conference games. The 6-foot-4 junior had 31 against Georgia Tech and 27 in an impressive overtime loss to Duke.

McCants’ effort wasn’t enough against Georgia Tech as the Yellow Jackets’ B.J. Elder scored 30 points and made seven of Tech’s season-best 13 3-pointers. It re-emphasized Carolina’s problems defending the perimeter.

“You have to put forth that effort and have that intensity at a very high level,” Williams said. “It has to be consistent. It is something that we have really struggled with throughout the course of this year.”

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