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.”

(Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

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.

No. 7 Tennessee beats Eastern Kentucky, win streak hits 7

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tyreke Key scored 10 of the first 12 points of the second half and finished with 17, and No. 7 Tennessee overcame a sluggish first half and beat Eastern Kentucky 84-49 on Wednesday night.

“Tyreke is handling the ball now,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “That’s all new to him. He keeps getting better.”

The Volunteers (8-1) struggled in the first half but still built an 11-point lead over Eastern Kentucky (4-5) on the way to their seventh straight victory.

Key led Tennessee in scoring before leaving with a cramp in his right leg with 6:15 left in the game. Julian Phillips had 16 points and 10 rebounds, and Zakai Zeigler and Uros Plavsic added 13 points apiece. Olivier Nkamhoua scored 10.

“I’m still settling in,” said Key, a transfer from Indiana State who didn’t play last year while recovering from an injury. “This is a new role. I’m taking steps every day and keep learning.”

Eastern Kentucky, which came into the game averaging 83.5 points, was held well below that total due to 17% (6 for 35) shooting from long range and 22% (15 for 68) overall. Leland Walker led the Colonels with 13 points.

It was the seventh time this season Tennessee has held its opponent to 50 or fewer points.

“(Tennessee) is the best defensive team in the country,” Eastern Kentucky coach A.W. Hamilton said. “I think they’re the best team in the country.”

At one point in the first half, Tennessee was shooting 20% and still leading by 10 points. The teams combined to shoot 4 of 32 from 3-point range in the first 20 minutes. The Vols, who shot 24% (8 of 34), led 32-21 at the break.

“If we can’t make shots, can you find a way to win the game?” Barnes said. “When the shot’s not going in, find a way to play. The first thing we talk about is our defense.”

Tennessee shot 41 free throws. Phillips, a true freshman, was 7 of 10.

“(Phillips) has learned the pace of the game,” Barnes said. “I’m not sure there’s been a more effective freshman in the country (this season).”

POLL IMPLICATIONS

Since its early season slip against Colorado, Tennessee has had a steady ascent in the rankings. The Vols’ next two games – neutral site (Brooklyn) against No, 13 Maryland (Dec. 11) and at No. 10 Arizona (Dec. 17) – will go a long way toward justifying the No. 7 ranking.

BIG PICTURE

Eastern Kentucky: The Colonels’ run-and-gun style of offense had them averaging 83.5 points through their first eight games. They ran into a defensive buzz saw in Tennessee, which was yielding just over 51 points.

Tennessee: Santiago Vescovi sat out his second straight game with a shoulder problem. He is expected to be ready to play Sunday against Maryland. . The Vols have won seven in a row since their loss to Colorado.

UP NEXT

Eastern Kentucky: The Colonels host Boyce College on Saturday.

Tennessee: Take on No. 13 Maryland on Sunday at the Hall of Fame Invitational in New York.

Hoggard scores career-high 23, Michigan St snaps 2-game skid

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A.J. Hoggard scored a career-high 23 points, Joey Hauser had 12 points and 15 rebounds and Michigan State beat Penn State 67-58 on Wednesday night to snap a two-game losing streak.

Michigan State (6-4, 1-1 Big Ten) avoided going .500 or worse after 10 games for the first time in 18 seasons.

Hoggard blocked an open layup with less than a minute to play and Hauser grabbed the rebound before being fouled and making two free throws at the other end for a 66-58 lead.

Hoggard, Hauser and Tyson Walker combined for 31 of Michigan State’s 32 second-half points.

The Michigan State defense allowed only one made field goal in the final five minutes. Penn State was just 1 of 9 from 3-point range in the second half after 7 of 18 before halftime.

Walker scored 10 of his 14 points in the second half for Michigan State. Hoggard, who entered third in the conference in assists at 6.3, had six rebounds, two assists and one key block.

Hoggard gave Michigan State 35-33 lead – its first since 4-2 – after back-to-back three-point plays with 59.3 seconds left in the first half. It was tied at 35-all at the break.

Seth Lundy scored 16 points and Jalen Pickett had 13 points, 17 rebounds and eight assists for Penn State (6-3, 0-1)

Michigan State hosts Brown on Saturday. Penn State, which hadn’t played since a double-overtime loss to Clemson on Nov. 29, plays at No. 17 Illinois on Saturday.

No. 7 Virginia Tech posts 9th straight win, beats BC 73-58

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BOSTON — Reigning Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year Elizabeth Kitley had 22 points and 12 rebounds, and Cayla King scored 16 on Wednesday night to lead No. 7 Virginia Tech to a 73-58 victory over Boston College, the Hokies’ ninth straight win.

Taylor Soule, one of two BC transfers on the roster for Virginia Tech (9-0, 1-0 ACC), added nine points and five rebounds. Soule scored more than 1,500 points and grabbed almost 700 rebounds in four seasons at BC, earning All-ACC honors three times.

Andrea Daley scored 15 points and Maria Gakdeng scored 14 for BC (7-4, 0-1). They each grabbed six rebounds.

Virginia Tech scored 17 of the game’s first 21 points and led by as many as 19 in the third quarter before BC cut the deficit to 10 in the fourth. Leading 64-54 with under three minutes left and the shot clock expiring, Kayana Traylor hit a 3-pointer for the Hokies.

Gakdeng missed two free throws for BC, and then Kitley scored from inside to make it a 15-point game.

Clara Ford, who also played four years in Chestnut Hill, pitched in 2 points in 2 minutes against her former team.

BIG PICTURE

At No. 7, the Hokies have the highest ranking in the program’s history. With the victory over BC, a 10th straight win against North Carolina-Asheville on Sunday would leave Virginia Tech in position to move up even higher should a top five team falter.

UP NEXT

Virginia Tech: Hosts North Carolina-Asheville on Sunday.

Boston College: Hosts Albany on Saturday.

Michigan’s Jaelin Llewellyn out for season with knee injury

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Michigan point guard Jaelin Llewellyn is out for the rest of the season with an injured left knee and is expected to have surgery next month.

Wolverines coach Juwan Howard made the announcement three days after Llewellyn was hurt in a loss to Kentucky in London.

Llewellyn transferred to Michigan from Princeton last spring and that seemed to lead to Frankie Collins transferring to Arizona State after a solid freshman season for the Wolverines.

Llewellyn averaged seven points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.8 assists in eight games at Michigan. He was an All-Ivy League player last season and averaged nearly 16 points over three seasons at Princeton.

Miles Kelly leads Georgia Tech to 79-77 win over rival Georgia

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: DEC 02 Northeastern at Georgia Tech
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ATLANTA – Georgia Tech’s Miles Kelly hit another winning shot against a state rival.

Terry Roberts endured a nightmarish final minute for Georgia.

Kelly hit a long 3-pointer and then a drove for the game-winning floater with 23 seconds remaining as the Yellow Jackets rallied to beat Georgia 79-77 on Tuesday night.

Kelly hit the winning shot in similar fashion against Georgia State on Nov. 12. He did it again to beat the Bulldogs, finishing with a team-high 17 points after failing to score in the first half.

“I’m going to continue to keep shooting, no matter how many times I miss,” Kelly said.

Roberts missed a 3-pointer, turned the ball over twice with bad passes, and was called for an offensive foul as he was trying to drive for the basket that would’ve sent the game to overtime.

“A tough finish for us,” Georgia first-year coach Mike White said. “We were in position to steal one on the road.”

A pair of second-chance buckets seemingly put Georgia (7-3) in control with a 77-73 lead.

The Bulldogs wouldn’t score again as Kelly led the comeback for the Yellow Jackets (6-3) – with a big assist from Roberts.

He had a chance to essentially seal it for the Bulldogs, but his jumper beyond the arc clanked off the rim.

Georgia Tech grabbed the rebound and raced down the court, where Kelly swished a 3 from well behind the stripe that brought Georgia Tech within a point with about a minute left.

Trying to work the ball inside, Roberts made an ill-advised entry pass that was deflected and stolen by Deivon Smith, setting up Kelly’s drive for the basket that put the Yellow Jackets back ahead,

Roberts tried a drive of his own, only to have it blocked by Jalon Moore. Georgia retained possession, but Roberts’ inbounds pass was stolen by Moore, who was fouled and made one of two free throws.

Roberts took the ball again and hurriedly dribbled toward the basket, only to be called for an offensive foul when he sent Smith flying.

“Just sacrificing my body for the team,” Smith said.

Georgia stole an inbounds pass around midcourt, giving Karlo Oquendo one last shot to launch a 3 that still would’ve won it for the Bulldogs. It bounced off the rim.

The game was tight throughout. Neither team led by more than eight, and a sequence in the second half showed just how tightly these rivals were matched.

With both squads playing at a frenetic pace and showing little regard for defense, the lead changed hands on eight straight possessions as the teams traded baskets.

Stunningly, they combined to score on 19 straight possessions before Georgia’s Matthew-Alexander Moncrieffe missed a pair of free throws with 5:17 remaining.

FIRING UP THE CROWD

Perhaps the biggest cheer of the night came when Georgia Tech football coach Brent Key addressed the crowd at halftime.

Key, who served as interim coach for the last eight games of the season, was introduced Monday as the full-time choice for job.

He fired up the fans by getting them to chant “To hell with Georgia” over and over again. When a smattering of Bulldogs fans responded with barks, Key smiled and egged on the Yellow Jackets crowd to drown them out.

He also declared Georgia Tech to be the “greatest school in the entire state, the entire country,” following up his vow the previous day to not back down from the defending national champion and top-ranked Bulldogs.

BIG PICTURE

Georgia: This will be a tough one to swallow for Roberts, who led his team with 16 points and seven assists. The Bulldogs lost despite shooting 53.4% from the field.

Georgia Tech: Four players scored in double figures, and two others players finished with eight points. But it was Kelly, as usual, who had the ball in his hands at the end of a tight game.

UP NEXT

Georgia: After a nearly two-week break, the Bulldogs return to Atlanta on Dec. 18 to face Notre Dame at State Farm Arena in the Holiday Hoopsgiving event.

Georgia Tech: Head to North Carolina on Saturday for the Atlantic Coast Conference opener against the struggling Tar Heels.