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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.

(Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

“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.

Joel Berry II’s touching encounter with a grieving fan

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When you are the starting point guard at North Carolina and a preseason All-American coming off of a season where your team won the national title while you won the Final Four Most Outstanding Player award, getting recognized in Chapel Hill comes with the territory.

Joel Berry II should expect it when he goes out to eat.

What Berry wasn’t expecting, however, was that simply being recognized could profoundly affect the life of one of his fans.

Berry shared the story with UNC’s in-house media arm, GoHeels.com. He was at breakfast with his girlfriend when he noticed two women eyeballing him. As it turns out, those two women were the mothers of two boys that had been best friends. One of the boys had moved to Oregon and, in February, died in an car accident. His name was Rob McKiver, and Berry was his favorite player on his favorite team.

MORE: Joel Berry II, fake tattoos and a family’s loving gesture

From GoHeels.com:

That’s why Carol Freedman and Myra McVicker sat in their booth that May morning with tears trickling down their cheeks. Freedman ultimately sent Berry a heartfelt email. She relayed the story of the McVicker family and then explained why the two women had been so closely watching Berry. “Your presence that Saturday, that morning when we could have met anywhere, at any other day or time, reaffirms our belief that those loved ones who leave this Earth are still with us if we look and listen,” she wrote. “In death, Rob let his mother know that his love for her is stronger than ever.”

The email deeply touched Berry, who wrote back that same day.

“This is by far the greatest email I have ever received,” Berry wrote. “I got goosebumps reading this letter and had to share it with my mom and dad. When telling my mom, she cried with joy knowing her son had impacted someone in that way. Each morning, I always tell myself, ‘Something good is going to happen today,’ and as I read that email, I said to myself, ‘This is more than something good. This is a life changer and I will always remember this.'”

I wrote about Berry and his family after UNC won the national title. I found him to be a likeable young man and someone who is very easy to root for, unless, of course, you live in Durham.

I guess I’m not the only one that feels that way.

Tommy Hawkins, first black all-american at Notre Dame, dead at 80 years old

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Tommy Hawkins, the first black basketball player to earn All-America honors at Notre Dame and who played for the Los Angeles Lakers during a 10-year NBA career, died Wednesday. He was 80.

Hawkins died in his sleep at home in Malibu, son Kevin told The Associated Press. He had been in good health and had lay down to rest, his oldest son said.

Hawkins graduated from Notre Dame in 1959 after playing three years on the basketball team. He had 1,318 career rebounds for the longest-standing record in Fighting Irish history. He was named to the school’s All-Century team in 2004 and inducted into its Ring of Honor in 2015. He led the Irish to a 44-13 record over his last two seasons, including an Elite Eight berth in the 1958 NCAA Tournament.

“He loved Notre Dame with every fiber of his being,” said Kevin Hawkins, who followed in his father’s footsteps and played basketball for the Irish before graduating in 1981. “He said Notre Dame did so much for him and grew him up to become the man that he would become.”

Hawkins became close with Notre Dame president Theodore Hesburgh, who served from 1952-87. Hesburgh was supportive when Hawkins was dating a white woman from nearby Saint Mary’s College and they were turned away from a South Bend restaurant that wouldn’t allow the interracial couple to dine, Kevin Hawkins said.

“That act led Father Hesburgh to ban Notre Dame (students) from eating there until my father got a public apology,” Kevin Hawkins said by phone from his home in South Bend. “Notre Dame walked the talk when you talk about civil rights. That meant the world to him.”

Kevin Hawkins said his father’s basketball teammate and future NFL Hall of Famer Paul Hornung led Hawkins back to the restaurant to secure the apology.

Kevin Hawkins said he spoke to his father almost daily and they had recently discussed last weekend’s civil unrest in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Hawkins was selected by the Minneapolis Lakers with the third pick in the first round of the 1959 NBA draft. He played one season in Minnesota before moving with the team to Los Angeles. He went on to play six seasons for the Lakers, averaging 9.0 points and 5.7 rebounds in 454 games.

The 6-foot-5 forward also played for the Cincinnati Royals from 1962-66. Hawkins recorded 6,672 points and 4,607 rebounds in his pro career.

“He was and will always be part of the Lakers family,” team CEO and majority owner Jeanie Buss said. “His baritone voice and easy demeanor made him a favorite of the fans and media, as well as everyone who had the honor of calling him a friend.”

Hawkins’ influence continued beyond his playing days. As a player representative, he had a key role in establishing the first collective bargaining agreement with the players’ union and the NBA.

Born Thomas Jerome Hawkins on Dec. 22, 1936, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, he moved to Chicago with his mother and aunt as a child. He starred at the city’s Parker High, now Robeson High, before being recruited by Notre Dame.

Kevin Hawkins recalled his father as a man with interests that ranged from poetry to jazz to sports. He self-published a book of poetry and Hawkins was in the midst of writing a memoir on his basketball career when he died.

“My father was a person who didn’t want to be defined as a jock or an ex-player,” Kevin Hawkins said. “He was an eclectic man. He had stories about everything from Notre Dame to the NBA to broadcasting.”

Hawkins enjoyed friendships with Alabama football coach Bear Bryant; UCLA basketball coach John Wooden; Southern California football coach John McKay; and artist LeRoy Neiman.

“You think about a man who grew up in the projects of Chicago that had done all these things in his life,” Kevin Hawkins said. “He called himself a cosmic functionary. That was his big deal. It made us all cringe, but he just loved it. He was a man of the world and a man of the people.”

Hawkins’ gregarious personality was on full display as master of ceremonies for the John R. Wooden Award presentation for over 30 years before he passed on his MC duties in 2011. He was co-national chairman of the award that honors the nation’s top male and female college basketball players.

Hawkins was hired in 1987 by then-Dodgers owner Peter O’Malley to be vice president of communications and he worked for the team until 2004.

“In life we are fortunate to know many people and Tommy was one person I always looked forward to seeing and being with,” said O’Malley, who sold the team in 1998. “He did an extraordinary job for the Dodgers as vice president, and his friendship will be missed by his family and many admirers.”

The Dodgers had a moment of silence for Hawkins before their game against the White Sox on Wednesday night.

Before joining the Dodgers, Hawkins worked in radio and television in Southern California, including stints with KNBC-TV and KABC radio.

He is survived by his second wife, Layla, and their daughter Neda; his first wife, Dori, and their children Kevin, Karel, Traci and David; seven grandchildren; and a great grandchild.

The family will likely hold a public memorial at a future date, Kevin Hawkins said.

Brad Underwood pokes fun at his version of ‘Take Me Out to the Ball Game’

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On Thursday afternoon, Brad Underwood, the new head coach of Illinois, was invited to Wrigley Field to throw out the first pitch and sing ‘Take Me Out To The Ball Game’ during the seventh inning stretch.

While the ceremonial first pitch went well, his rendition of the ballpark classic did not go as smoothly.

Underwood was at least able to poke fun at his vocals following his performance.

“I’d rather coach naked than sing in front of 40,000,” Underwood said afterward. “There’s a reason my wife won’t let me sing in church.”

Underwood took over Illinois in mid-March following a one-year stint at Oklahoma State. He had previously led Stephen F. Austin to three NCAA Tournament appearances in as many seasons.

 

AAC plan men’s basketball tourney at new Texas arena in ’20

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FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) — The American Athletic Conference will hold its men’s basketball tournament in a new arena in North Texas in 2020.

AAC Commissioner Mike Aresco announced Wednesday that Dickies Arena in Fort Worth has been selected to host the tournament for three years, starting in March 2020. That is only four months after the facility is scheduled to open.

On the same day of a groundbreaking ceremony for the 14,000-seat arena last April, the NCAA announced that first- and second-round games of the 2022 NCAA men’s basketball tournament would be held there. The NCAA women’s gymnastics championships are scheduled there from 2020-22.

The closest AAC school to the new arena is SMU, with its campus in Dallas about 40 miles away.

Orlando will host the 2018 AAC tournament, which moves to Memphis in 2019.

After hearing, UNC now awaits NCAA ruling in academic case

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North Carolina has wrapped up a two-day hearing with an NCAA infractions committee panel that will decide whether the school faces penalties tied to its multi-year academic scandal.

Now the case goes into yet another holding pattern.

School officials spent much of Wednesday in a closed-door meeting with committee members in Nashville, Tennessee. They returned Thursday morning for a second session lasting about 4½ hours with the panel that will determine whether UNC faces penalties such as fines, probation or vacated wins and championships.

NCAA spokeswoman Stacey Osburn confirmed the hearing was complete but both sides were mum afterward.

Osburn didn’t comment further because the panel must deliberate before issuing a ruling, which typically comes weeks to months after a hearing. UNC athletics spokesman Steve Kirschner said the school wouldn’t have any comments about the hearing either.

Getting through the hearing process was a major step toward resolution in a delay-filled case tied to irregular courses, though there’s still the potential for the case to linger beyond a ruling if UNC decides to appeal or pursue legal action. The school faces five top-level charges, including lack of institutional control.

The focus is independent study-style courses in the formerly named African and Afro-American Studies (AFAM) department. The courses were misidentified as lecture classes that didn’t meet and required a research paper or two for typically high grades.

In a 2014 investigation, former U.S. Justice Department official Kenneth Wainstein estimated more than 3,100 students were affected between 1993 and 2011, with athletes making up roughly half the enrollments.

The NCAA has said UNC used those courses to help keep athletes eligible.

The case grew as an offshoot of a 2010 probe of the football program that resulted in sanctions in March 2012. The NCAA reopened an investigation in summer 2014, filed charges in a May 2015, revised them in April 2016 and then again in December.

Most notably, the NCAA originally treated some of the academic issues as improper benefits by saying athletes received access to the courses and other assistance generally unavailable to non-athletes. The NCAA removed that charge in the second Notice of Allegations (NOA), then revamped and re-inserted it into the third NOA.

UNC has challenged the NCAA’s jurisdiction, saying its accreditation agency — which sanctioned the school with a year of probation — was the proper authority and that the NCAA was overreaching in what should be an academic matter .

The NCAA enforcement staff countered in a July filing: “The issues at the heart of this case are clearly the NCAA’s business.”

UNC has argued non-athletes had access to the courses and athletes didn’t receive special treatment. It has also challenged Wainstein’s estimate of athlete enrollments, saying Wainstein counted athletes who were no longer team members and putting the figure at less than 30 percent.

UNC chancellor Carol Folt, athletic director Bubba Cunningham, men’s basketball coach Roy Williams and women’s basketball coach Sylvia Hatchell attended both hearing days. Football coach Larry Fedora, who wasn’t at UNC at the time in question, attended Wednesday’s session.

None of the coaches are charged with a violation. But football and men’s basketball are referenced in the broad-based improper benefits charge tied to athlete access to the irregular courses, while women’s basketball is tied to a charge focused on a former professor and academic counselor Jan Boxill providing improper assistance on assignments.

Boxill and Deborah Crowder, who is also charged individually in the case, attended Wednesday with their attorneys but didn’t return Thursday. Crowder is a former AFAM office administrator who enrolled students, distributed assignments and graded many of the papers in irregular courses.

The infractions panel is chaired by Southeastern Conference Commissioner Greg Sankey and includes former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.