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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.

John Petty Jr. returns to Alabama for senior season

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Alabama guard John Petty Jr. is staying in school instead of entering the NBA draft.

The Crimson Tide junior announced his decision to return for his senior season Monday on Twitter, proclaiming: “I’m back.”

Petty, the Tide’s top 3-point shooter, averaged 14.5 points and a team-high 6.6 rebounds rebounds last season. He was second on the team in assists.

Petty made 85 3-pointers in 29 games, shooting at a 44% clip.

Alabama coach Nate Oats called him “one of the best, if not the best, shooters in the country.”

“He’s made it clear that it’s his goal to become a first round pick in the 2021 NBA Draft and we’re going to work with him to make sure he’s in the best position to reach that goal,” Oats said.

Fellow Tide guard Kira Lewis Jr. is regarded as a likely first-round draft pick.

McKinley Wright IV returns to Colorado

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McKinley Wright IV will be back for season No. 4 with the Colorado Buffaloes.

The point guard tested the NBA draft process before announcing a return for his senior year. It’s a big boost for a Buffaloes team that’s coming off a 21-11 mark in 2019-20 and was potentially looking at an NCAA Tournament bid before the season was halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Wright was an All-Pac-12 first team selection a season ago, along with an all-defensive team pick. He and athletic forward Tyler Bey declared for the draft in late March. Bey remains in the draft.

“We’ve got unfinished business,” said Wright, who averaged 14.4 points and 5.0 assists per game last season.

Midway through the season, the Buffaloes were looking like a lock for their first NCAA Tournament appearance since ’15-16. Then, the team hit a five-game skid, including a loss to Washington State in the Pac-12 tournament. Simply put, they hit a defensive rut they just couldn’t shake out of, Wright said. It drove him to work that much harder in the offseason.

“This is my last go-around and I’ve got big dreams,” the 6-footer from Minnesota said. “I want to take CU to a place they haven’t been in a while. We want to go back to the tournament and win high-level games.”

The feedback from NBA scouts was reaffirming for Wright. He said they appreciated his transition game, movement away from the ball and his defensive intangibles. They also gave Wright areas he needed to shore up such as assist-to-turnover ratio and shooting the 3-pointer with more consistency.

He took it to heart while training in Arizona during the pandemic. He recently returned to Boulder, Colorado, where he’s going through quarantine before joining his teammates for workouts.

“The work I put in and the time I spent in the gym compared to all my other offseasons, it’s a big gap,” Wright said. “Last offseason, I thought I worked hard. But it was nothing compared to the time and different type of mindset I put myself in this year.”

Another motivating factor for his return was this: a chance to be the first in his family to earn his college degree. He’s majoring in ethnic studies with a minor in communications.

“My grandparents are excited about that. My parents are excited about that,” Wright said. “I’m excited about that as well.”

Wright also has an opportunity to take over the top spot on the school’s all-time assists list. His 501 career assists trail only Jay Humphries, who had 562 from 1980-84. Wright also ranks 13th all-time with 1,370 career points.

NOTES: Colorado announced the death of 95-year-old fan Betty Hoover, who along with her twin sister, Peggy Coppom, became fixtures at Buffs sporting events and were season ticket holders since 1958. Wright used to run into them not only on the court, but at the local bank. “I’ve never met anyone as loving and supporting and caring as those two,” Wright said. “They hold a special place in my heart. It sucks that Betty won’t be at any games this year. Maybe we can do something, put her name on our jersey. They’re two of the biggest fans in CU history.”

Jared Butler returns to Baylor

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Baylor got some huge news on Monday as potential All-American Jared Butler announced that he will be returning to school for his junior season, joining MaCio Teague is pulling his name out of the 2020 NBA Draft to get the band back together.

Butler was Baylor’s leading scorer a season ago, averaging 16.0 points and 3.1 assists for a team that went 26-4, spent a portion of the season as the No. 1 team in the country and was in line to receive a 1-seed had the 2020 NCAA Tournament taken place.

With Butler and Teague coming back to school, the Bears will return four starters from last season’s squad. Starting center Freddie Gillespie is gone, as is backup guard Devonte Bandoo, but those are holes that can be filled. Tristan Clark, who was Baylor’s best player during the 2018-19 season before suffering a knee injury that lingered through last year, will be back, and there is more than enough talent in the program to replace the scoring pop of Bandoo. Matthew Mayer will be in line for more minutes, while transfer Adam Flagler will be eligible this season.

Baylor will enter this season as a consensus top three team in the country. They will receive plenty of votes as the No. 1 team in the sport, making them not only a very real contender for the Big 12 regular season crown but one of the favorites to win the national title.

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As MaCio Teague returns, Baylor now awaits Jared Butler’s NBA draft decision

Butler is the key.

Baylor was one of college basketball’s best defensive teams last year. They finished fourth nationally in KenPom’s defensive efficiency metric, a ranking that dropped after they Bears lost two of their last three games to TCU and West Virginia. Where they struggled was on the offensive end of the floor. The Bears would go through droughts were points were at a premium and their best offense was a missed shot. Butler’s intrigue for NBA teams was his ability to shoot and to create space in isolation. He’s the one guy on the roster that can create something out of nothing for himself.

And now he is back to try and lead Baylor to a Final Four.

Arizona State’s Martin to return for senior season

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TEMPE, Ariz. (–Arizona State guard Remy Martin is withdrawing from the NBA draft and will return for his senior season in the desert.

“I’m blessed to have the opportunity to coach Remy Martin for one more season,” Sun Devils coach Bobby Hurley said in a statement Sunday. “Remy will be one of the best players in college basketball this year and will be on a mission to lead Arizona State basketball in its pursuit of championships.”

A 6-foot guard, Martin is the Pac-12’s leading returning scorer after averaging 19.1 points in 2019-20. He also averaged 4.1 assists per game and helped put the Sun Devils in position to reach the NCAA Tournament for the third straight year before the season was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Martin’s return should put Arizona State among the favorites to win the Pac-12 next season.

Martin joins fellow guard Alonzo Verge Jr. in returning to the Sun Devils after testing the NBA waters. Big man Romello White declared for the draft and later entered the transfer portal.

Hurley has signed one of the program’s best recruiting classes for next season, headed by five-star guard Josh Christopher.

Michigan State forward Xavier Tillman will remain in the 2020 NBA Draft

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In the end, Xavier Tillman Sr.’s decision whether or not to return to remain in the 2020 NBA Draft for his senior season came down to security.

A 6-foot-8 forward that averaged 13.7 points, 10.3 boards, 3.0 assists and 2.1 blocks this past season, Tillman was an NBC Sports third-team All-American a season ago. He’s projected as the No. 23 pick in the latest NBC Sports mock draft. He was the best NBA prospect that had yet to make a decision on his future until Sunday.

That’s when Tillman announced that he will be foregoing his final season of college eligibility to head to the NBA.

In the end, it’s probably the right decision, but it’s not one that the big fella made easily.

Tillman is unlike most college basketball players forced to make a decision on their basketball future. He is married. He has two kids, a three-year old daughter and a six-month old son. This is not a situation where he can bet on himself, head to the pro ranks and figure it out later on.

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He needs something stable, particularly given the fact that we are living in the midst of a pandemic that has put the future of sports in doubt, at least for the short term.

He needs security.

He needed to know that there would be a job for him in the NBA. Not a two-way contract. Not a spot on a camp roster or a chance to develop in the G League. Hell, there might not even be a G League next season. That was an option at Michigan State. He was living in an apartment with his family that was covered by his scholarship and stipend. He had meals paid for. He was able to take food from the training room home and have dinner with his family. He was able to get to class, to the gym, to practice and back home in time to do the dishes at night. He told NBC Sports in March that the school was able to provide him with $1,200-a-month to help pay for things like diapers high chairs. That was all going to be there if he returned to school. It was a great situation, one that lacked the uncertainty that comes with the professional level.

Because as much as I love Tillman as a role player at the next level, NBA teams do not all feel the same. The tricky thing about the draft is that it makes sense to swing for the fences on the guys that can be locked into salaries for the first four years of a contract. The Toronto Raptors took Pascal Siakam with the 27th pick and have paid less than $7 million in total salary in his first four years for a player that made an all-star team. Kyle Kuzma is averaging 16.0 points through three seasons and is on the books for $3.5 million in year four.

Tillman’s ability to defend, his basketball IQ, his play-making and his professional demeanor means that he can step into the modern NBA and do a job as a rotation player for just about any team in the league. But he doesn’t have the upside that other bigs in the same projected range have — Jalen Smith, Daniel Oturu, Jaden McDaniels, Zeke Nnaji — so there are teams that are scared off.

I don’t get it.

But Tillman’s decision to head to the professional ranks indicates that he does, indeed, feel confident in the fact that he will have gainful and steady employment next season. Since he would have walked at Michigan State’s graduation in May had it been held, that doesn’t leave much to return to school for.

The Spartans will now be left in a tough spot. There are quite a few pieces to like on this roster. Rocket Watts had promising moments as a freshman, as did Malik Hall. Gabe Brown and Marcus Bingham are both talented players. Joey Hauser had a good season at Marquette, and the early returns on freshman Mady Sissoko are promising. But this is going to be a young and unproven group.

Izzo has had less at his disposal before, but this is certainly not an ideal situation for Michigan State.