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The biggest criticism of Roy Williams is actually proof he’s one of college basketball’s best

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GLENDALE, Ariz. — It was a joke.

Mark Few was quite clearly kidding.

He and Roy Williams have been friends and rivals and gambling buddies for years, and even if the pair were mortal enemies, Few is not the kind of person that would sit on the dais in the one of the biggest press conferences of the year in college basketball and start firing shots at anyone, let alone the man he will be coaching against on Monday night.

But when Few was asked where there was a clear advantage for Gonzaga against North Carolina, two teams that matchup with each other almost too perfectly, his answer was simple, concise and direct: “Coaching,” he deadpanned.

The room erupted in laughter, and Williams himself would chuckle and grin when the story was recounted to him an hour later, the irony being that the general public wouldn’t get the joke.

Williams never get mentioned among the greatest coaches of all-time. He’s not on the same level as Dean Smith, or John Wooden, or Adolph Rupp, or even his Tobacco Road counterpart, Mike Krzyzewski. He’s not a great basketball mind, his critics will tell you, he’s a recruiter that wins because he gets the best players and rolls the ball out.

Only one of those statements is factual.

What makes Roy Williams great, the reason that he may very well be the greatest college basketball coach of this generation, is that he’s good enough at what he does that he can just roll the ball out and let his guys go.


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All you need to do to know just how good, and just how under-appreciated, Roy Williams is as a head coach is to look at the numbers that he’s put up in his career.

He’s been to nine Final Fours. Only Wooden, Krzyzewski and Smith have been to more. Monday night will be the sixth national title game that he’s played in, and if the Tar Heels win, it will be the third national title that he’s won. Only wooden, Rupp and Krzyzewski have won more than him. He’s won eight of the last 13 ACC regular season titles; Krzyzewsi has won two in that time frame. He’s been a head coach for 29 seasons, and he’s won a regular season title — ACC, Big 12 or Big Eight — in 17 of them.

Williams has more NCAA tournament wins than anyone since 2000, and it’s really not all that close. He has 55. John Calipari has 40. Bill Self has 42. Tom Izzo has 43. It would take the Tar Heels losing on Monday and in the first round of the tournament for the next two seasons while Duke wins back-to-back national titles for Krzyzewski, who is second on that list with 44 tournament wins, to surpass him.

Williams also has the second-highest winning percentage of any active head coach, and the only guy that is ahead of him on that list is Few, who is terrific in his own right but whose numbers are inflated by playing in the talent-deficient WCC.

“You don’t do that if you can’t coach,” Sean May, who won a title with Williams before becoming a member of his coaching staff, said.

Which is why the knock on him is that he’s a recruiter, a guy that simply goes out and gets the best players, relying on their natural ability to lead him to glory, except that’s not exactly the way that this thing has worked. Williams hasn’t had a one-and-done player since 2007, and it may be hard for you to figure out who, exactly, that player is. (Brandan Wright.) Marvin Williams, who bounced after winning a title in 2005, is the only other one and done that has spent time in Chapel Hill under Williams’ watch.

“Coach always says when he was at Kansas, they said he could coach and couldn’t get elite guys,” said former Tar Heel Marcus Paige. “And now he’s at Carolina, and he can recruit, he’s just not as good of a coach.”

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His bread and butter are the kids that are elite prospects but that fall just short of that one-and-done threshold, the four- and five-star kids that need a couple of years on campus before they turn into NBA-caliber prospects. Think Justin Jackson, a top 15 player that needed to develop the confidence and the strength to be able to play on the wing in the NBA. He may end up being a lottery pick once his junior year comes to an end. Brice Johnson was a four-star recruit who grew into a late-first round pick and an all-american after four years of schooling under Williams. Marcus Paige, Joel Berry II, Kennedy Meeks, Tyler Zeller, John Henson.

“He’s arguably been the best coach of the past 15 years if you go off of success,” Paige said, “instead of just media perception.”

And it’s that media perception that keeps Williams out of the conversation for being one of the very best to ever do it.

Which is silly.

Because the very thing that is used to criticize him is what makes him great.

North Carolina’s offense is fairly unique in the college ranks. They don’t run many set plays at all; players and staff estimate that about 70 percent of their half court possessions are what the Heels call ‘freelance,’ which is exactly what it sounds like: “Everybody does what they want,” Paige said.

But freelance is so much more complicated than simply showing up and playing, like walking into the Dean Dome is the same thing as picking your five, calling next and getting on the court at the park on a Saturday afternoon.

“It’s definitely not just a roll the ball out and let the guys play kind of deal,” Nate Britt said. “It’s not like we’re playing pickup.”

Freelance, typically, starts out of North Carolina’s secondary break. When the Tar Heels gain possession on the defensive end, the first thing they are going to look to do is beat their opponent down the floor, a layup or an open three before the defenses gets being the goal. This is scripted. The shooting guard sprints to the right wing. The small forward sprints to the left wing. The four-man sprints to the block, what’s called a rim-run, and Berry, who is drilled to receive the outlet with his momentum taking him up the floor, first looks to see if one of those three will be open or if he can get all the way to the rim for a layup of his own.

That’s the primary break. The secondary break offense that Williams is famous for comes out of that. Plays aren’t scripted. Every player on the floor has a read to make based off of what a teammate does. Within the system, there are actions designed to create ball-screens, or pin-downs, or post-ups, or whatever.

But the calls are seldom made from the sideline.

It all is based off of where Berry’s first pass goes, where he cuts to after making that pass and how the defensive is playing. From there, North Carolina gets into their freelance, continuity offense.

The coaching doesn’t come in the game.

The coaching comes when he’s drilling into these players what is and what isn’t a good shot in this offense.

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“You have to teach the system,” May said. “It’s hard [to learn], but once you get it? I can go right now and run everything these guys run because I played in it, but you still have to go out there and teach guys how to make the right plays, how to be in the right spots at the right moments. All that is coaching. That doesn’t just happen because you’re there.”

“As much as it looks like we may be in freelance and doing our own thing,” added Jackson, “Coach has taught us the principles that we need to use for that.”

That’s part of the reason North Carolina is so hard to guard. Scouting at this level has reached the point where every team knows every set and every call for whoever they’re playing. There are no secrets.

With North Carolina, there also isn’t a blueprint. You don’t really know what they’re going to do because they don’t even know what they’re going to do.

It’s not an easy thing to coach against, but it may be more difficult to coach.

Williams is turning over the decision-making power to his players, and that’s not an easy thing to do in a sport where coaches tend to be control freaks. But he does that knowing that he’s put in the work in practice, that he’s taught them — coached them — to do more than run a basketball play.

He’s turned them into basketball players.

And that’s why he can have success a higher rate than anyone else since the turn of the century by simply rolling the ball out.

VIDEO: Providence coach Ed Cooley always needs a mic

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On Friday night at DePaul, Providence head coach Ed Cooley allowed himself to be mic’d up for a TV broadcast, and things got interesting.

Around the 36 second mark, Cooley starts talking about … vampires and bats and dracula?

Then robbing banks and saying thank you?

I don’t know. Just watch.

VIDEO: Kansas celebrates in locker room after West Virginia win

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After coming from 16 points down to knock off No. 6 West Virginia in Morgantown on Monday night, Kansas had themselves some fun in the visitor’s locker room.

I’m not exactly sure what is happening here, but I do know Devonte’ Graham is having a hell of a time.

COLUMN: Kansas is back on top in the Big 12

My only question … where is Billy Preston’s shirt? He didn’t even play:

No. 10 Kansas overcomes deficits and its own issues to win at No. 6 West Virginia

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It’s hard to look at Kansas – the roster, the stats, the resume and all that comes with it – and not conclude this is the most vulnerable squad the Jayhawks have fielded since its current domination of the Big 12 began in 2005. The flaws are apparent, and they’re serious. They could easily be enough to sink the Jayhawks in an unforgiving conference.

It also could just be business as usual for Bill Self’s program

Tenth-ranked Kansas sputtered and struggled Monday night, but, ultimately, it didn’t matter as the Jayhawks stole a game at a rowdy WVU Coliseum, topping sixth-ranked West Virginia, 71-66, to keep its spot atop the Big 12 despite whatever issues bothered them against the Mountaineers and may persist well into the winter.

One of the major differences of this Kansas team from the 13 that preceded it is the Jayhawks can’t overwhelm with talent and athleticism. There’s no Andrew Wiggins, Josh Jackson, Thomas Robinson or any other surefire lottery pick to just go get buckets. There isn’t a host of high-level athletes that can help Kansas just run inferior teams off the floor. When you have two things, your margin of error gets padded. Mistakes aren’t magnified. They’re minimized. That’s not a luxury Kansas now enjoys.

Then there’s the issue of the roster. Even with Silvio De Sousa being declared eligible, Kansas is still incredibly thin and inexperienced up front. Udoka Azubuike is a load, but he’s the only big man that even inspires a bit of fear from opponents. If Billy Preston ever gets on the floor, maybe this becomes less of an issue for the Jayhawks, but it’s difficult to believe a true freshman making a whole host of difference this late in the season.

So for Kansas to win its 14th-straight Big 12 regular season championship, the Jayhawks are going to have to have to play a specific way. There’s not much wiggle room. They’ve got to defend. They’ve got to shoot 3s. They’ve got to be tough. They’ve got to be resilient.

That’s exactly what the Jayhawks were against Bob Huggins’ team Monday. If you can out-tough, out-hustle and out-work a Huggins team on their home floor, you’re on to something.

West Virginia led by as many as 16 in the first half. The Mountaineers had Kansas shook. Well Sagaba Konate did, at least. Eulogies were already being written for Kansas, especially as West Virginia’s lead stayed in double digits past the midway point of the second half.

West Virginia is designed to wear down opponents. The Mountaineers try to create a crucible, especially in Morgantown, that will force opponents to wilt. That’s supposed to be its most potent late in games.

That’s when Kansas thrived.

The Jayhawks outscored West Virginia 26-11 over the final 8 minutes. The Mountaineers were 5 of 14 (35.7 percent) from the floor with four turnovers during that stretch. Kansas, conversely, make 7 of 10 shots overall and 3 of 4 from 3-point range.

It wasn’t exactly rope-a-dope, but Kansas saved its best for last. They made winning plays. That’s really what’s going to have to separate them from the pack this season. As good as Devonte Graham is, as effective as Svi Mykhailiuk can be and as good as Self is, the Jayhawks are going to have to grind more than they’re accustomed to. 

The Big 12 is unmerciful this season. Texas Tech already has a win at Allen Fieldhouse, Trae Young has gone full supernova and even the league’s bottom tier looks like tough outs. Kansas faces a major test, and they’ll do so without a roster that compares to some of the powerhouses Self has assembled. The Jayhawks have often been able to win just by delivering broad strokes. They were bigger, faster, stronger and, simply, better. When they coupled that with a mastery of the finer points of the game, they dominated.

If The Streak is going to reach 14, it won’t be with that blueprint. The grittier parts of the game are going to have to come to the forefront. Outlasting West Virginia in Morgantown while shooting 44 percent and facing double-digit deficits would suggest the Jayhawks have the toughness and ability to make clutch plays that can paper over other issues.

Kansas isn’t going to overwhelm the Big 12 this year. They still very well could win it.

Monday’s Three Things to Know: Duke wins, Kansas wins and … BC wins?

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1. SO MAYBE KANSAS IS GOING TO WIN THE BIG 12 AFTER ALL

It happens EVERY YEAR.

Kansas goes on some prolonged slump, plays like a hot garbage for a few weeks and gets all of us thinking that yes, this year is different than all of the other years, that this is the year the Jayhawks won’t actually win the Big 12 regular season title.

I am a member of that club, and I feel pretty stupid after Monday night.

Kansas went into Morgantown and knocked off No. 6 West Virginia, 71-66, despite trailing for the majority of the game and spending the first 12 minutes of the second half staring up at a double-digit deficit. Simply put: the Jayhawks had no business winning on Monday night, and yet they did anyway, moving themselves into sole possession of first place in the Big 12 and making up for the fact that they lost at home to Texas Tech earlier this season.

Our Travis Hines penned a column on this game, so I’ll let him elaborate more, but one thing I will note here is that Silvio De Sousa played well in some important minutes at the end of the first half. Turning him into a player that can be a competent energy for 10-15 minutes off the bench will be massive.

2. BC’S ROLLING

The Jim Christian era at Boston College hasn’t exactly been sunshine and rainbows. The Eagles have never finished a season above .500 and failed to reach double-digit wins the last two years. That put Christian on the hot seat coming into the season and with little reason to believe the temperature would come down in the always-competitive ACC.

Things, though, have been pretty good – at least when judged against the last three years – in Chestnut Hill. With Monday’s 81-75 win over Florida State, Boston College is now 3-3 in the ACC, which exceeds its conference win total from the last two years…combined. Yes. BC won just two games against ACC opponents combined in 2016 and 2017, winning two games last year after going 0-18 the season prior.

It hasn’t really been a function of scheduling or luck, either. Other than getting stomped by North Carolina in Chapel Hill, Boston College has been competitive every night out, losing by a combined five points to Virginia and Clemson. Now, don’t go putting Boston College in the FIeld of 68 or anything like that just yet, but it’s easy to see that after three years in the woods, the Eagles may be closer to finding something akin to consistent competency.

3. DUKE IS STARTING TO PLAY SOME DEFENSE

The Blue Devils won at No. 25 Miami tonight. Rob Dauster has a column up on that game right now which gets into everything you need to know.

But there is this tidbit that is important to know: Duke allowed less than 1.00 points-per-possession on Monday night. It’s the third straight game that they have allowed less than 1.00 PPP, and that’s the first time that they have done that since 2014.

Granted, the best offense in those three games ranks outside the top 50 in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency metric (Wake Forest) and two of them (Miami, 107th, and Pitt, 236th) rank outside the top 100. but you have to start somewhere. Is this the beginning of another defensive renaissance?

VIDEO: West Virginia’s Sagaba Konate hosts block party vs. Kansas

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Do not try Sagaba Konate.

The West Virginia big man has no time for anyone – especially Kansas Jayhawks attempting dunks – at the rim.

Konate’s first half against Kansas on Monday night was borderline dominant on the defensive end, with the 6-foot-8 sophomore blocking five shots as the Mountaineers controlled the game against Big 12 favorite Kansas.

The numbers were great, but the actual blocks were even better.

It looked like Konate had submitted his Block of the Year candidate early when Kansas senior Svi Mykhailiuk challenged him on a fast break. Konate wasn’t having any of it.

Konate may have one-upped himself later in the half, though, when Marcus Garrett, despite presumably having eyes and a short-term memory, thought it was a good idea to try to put Konate on a poster with a dunk of his own.

Super bad idea.

The Big 12 has some dominant shot blockers in the 7-footer mold of Texas’ Mo Bamba and Jo Lual-Acuil, but Konate may be the best of the bunch.