- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 8, 2005

The ACC’s baby-blue bully is back.

North Carolina, perhaps the nation’s most successful program before it fell from grace earlier this decade, again is ruling the league. The Tar Heels clinched the ACC regular-season championship Sunday after rallying from a nine-point deficit in the final three minutes to beat Duke.

Marvin Williams was carried off as the conquering hero as students flooded the Dean Smith Center floor. Other players formed a pile in celebration, a cathartic moment for the again proud program.

“I have been to the bottom, and now just having this type of season is really great,” said Jackie Manuel, a senior who is one of three players left from the program’s low point, an 8-20 record three seasons ago. “After being through what we’ve been through, you don’t take anything for granted.”

It has taken coach and alumnus Roy Williams just two years to make the Tar Heels a national force again. Second-ranked North Carolina is a virtual lock for a No. 1 seed in next week’s NCAA tournament headed into this week’s ACC tournament at MCI Center.

The Tar Heels (26-3, 14-2 in the ACC) are talented and deep but just as importantly have settled internal issues for their common good. They showcase four likely NBA lottery picks — Sean May, Rashad McCants, Raymond Felton and Marvin Williams — and a coach on his way to the Hall of Fame.

However, the stars haven’t always worked in harmony. All but freshman Williams were there last season when Roy Williams’ first Carolina team finished 19-11 and advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament. Talent carried the club, though other agendas took a toll. McCants shot too much, Felton was more interested in scoring than running the team and May was in questionable shape.

May slimmed down and became the league’s top big man, something the 6-foot-9, 275-pounder showed with his 26-point, 24-rebound performance against Duke. Felton (ACC-high 7.25 assists a game) has become more interested in setting up others than scoring. And McCants — who has missed the last four games with an intestinal disorder and is uncertain this week — has been more selective with his shots.

“I think [mental toughness] is the difference in our team right now than last year,” said Roy Williams, whose team has come from behind to win its last four games. “The chemistry is better and all that kind of stuff. Toughness is something I preach from Day 1. They have to be tough enough to put up with me sometimes, which is not easy in itself. Toughness and trust — you need to trust your teammates to do the right thing for you.”

With McCants out, 6-foot-9 swingman Marvin Williams — who could be the first player taken in the NBA Draft if he comes out this season — gives UNC another versatile threat. Senior Jawad Williams finally is playing up to the potential that made him a blue-chip recruit four years ago.

“It is our time right now,” said May, who is averaging a double-double (16.7 points, 10.9 rebounds) and making 54.8 percent of his shots. “We have an opportunity to take care of some business — to get Carolina back to where it had been for so many years.”

North Carolina is enjoying the success its program and fans used to take for granted. The Tar Heels made 27 consecutive NCAA tournaments before the 2001-02 debacle, which included home losses to Hampton and Davidson. Dean Smith’s dynasty, highlighted by 11 Final Fours and two national titles, was in ruins under coach Matt Doherty.

The soap opera climaxed after the 2002-03 season, which ended with an NIT appearance, a coup by the players and the dumping of Doherty. That’s when Roy Williams, a Smith disciple who had just taken Kansas to two consecutive Final Fours, returned to rebuild the fallen Heels.

“Roy Williams runs a tight ship with a resume,” Maryland radio analyst Chris Knoche said. “And also he is an affable guy. He’s got sort of an ‘aw shucks’ to him that naturally ingratiates himself to people, and the kids have responded to that. Matt was more New York, more bluster, a hard-edged type. It’s just a difference in approach. One was abhorred, and the other was embraced.”

Williams does have a Southern gentleman’s approach but is not shy about the demands on his players in a systematic, fast-paced offense that’s triggered by an aggressive defense. He openly questioned McCants’ mind-set and could not fathom how his team could be so undisciplined and commit so many stupid mistakes.

“Do you want to know why coaches aren’t allowed to carry guns? Watch my team,” he said after his team nearly blew a 20-point halftime lead against Maryland last season. “The inconsistency that we’re playing with is mind-boggling.”

A season later, the regimen that marked his Kansas teams in now found in Chapel Hill. The Tar Heels play at Williams’ traditional breakneck pace (ACC-high 89.3 points a game) but make better decisions and wear out opponents with depth.

And unlike last season, these Tar Heels are seemingly unflappable. Recently, they squandered a 10-point second-half lead at Maryland.

“Last year this team would have got rattled,” May said. “We would be like, ‘How does that happen?’ We never got into that. We knew we were going to win. This team was just able to show poise, and that’s why we won.”

Sure enough, Felton scored the winning layup off a well-placed screen in the two-point victory, and May blocked Mike Jones’ game-tying attempt as time ran out. Carolina improved to 6-2 on the road in the ACC — and left Comcast Center looking like a champion.

“They have got swagger in spades,” Knoche said. “I remember how whipped-dogged they look when Maryland drilled them [by 33 in 2002] a few years ago. That has certainly been erased. Certainly, the pride is back. Winning is a pretty wondrous staff. It cures every ill, and these guys are thinking that the sun sets right on their rear ends. And you know what, it does right now.”

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