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NORTH CAROLINA TAR HEELS BASKETBALL

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For UNC's Roy Williams, season is 'biggest disappointment'

Tar Heels coach has never had to deal with the frustrations of this year's UNC squad.

By Robbi Pickeral
robbi.pickeral@newsobserver.com

CHAPEL HILL - Less than a year after earning his second national championship and publishing his autobiography "Hard Work," North Carolina coach Roy Williams is stunned, angry and saddened that he's still trying to figure out how to make this season's team work hard.

"The most significant thing to me is that I haven't been able to find the right answers to a lot of things as a coach," Williams said last week, sitting behind his notes-topped desk at the Smith Center. "And more than anything, I haven't been able to get this team to play with the intensity that all of our teams have ever played with. And that's the thing that's hurt our team, and on a personal basis, it's bothered me more than anything, because every team I've ever had played really hard."

The Tar Heels, who began the season ranked No. 6 in the country, have fallen to depths Williams has never experienced in his 22 years at Kansas and UNC: a 16-15 record, a No. 10 seed in this week's ACC tournament, and the probability that he won't coach in the NCAA tournament for the first time that his team has been eligible.

The struggles have had him doing everything from calling rare early timeouts (which he usually hoards) to having his players switch on screens (which he usually abhors). The free fall has had him questioning everything from the way he runs practice to the way he recruits.

But it has also stirred the Hall-of-Famer's determination that this kind of season never happens again.

"I do believe that I've coached harder down the stretch than I ever have," said Williams, 59. "I do believe that I will coach harder as the rest of the season pans out. I do believe I will recruit harder in the summer.

"I do believe it has been a different fuel, but a more powerful fuel, because as much as I enjoyed winning a national championship in '05, and how satisfying and what a relief winning a national championship [was] in '09 - I dislike this far, far more than I enjoyed those."

Back in October, with his new book set to be published and a first grandchild on the way, Williams was confident, as usual, that he could put together another NCAA-caliber team.

On the surface, he seemed to have at least two of the elements: a couple of senior starters, a highly-rated incoming recruiting class. But he also was trying to dampen Final Four expectations - pointing in particular to potential struggles from the perimeter without Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington and Bobby Frasor, and to a steep learning curve without forwards Tyler Hansbrough and Danny Green.

"We knew we had some holes; you heard me laugh in the fall and in the summer, 'How can people say you lose six of your top eight guys, and one guy you have coming back hasn't played in over a year ... yet we're top 10?' " he said. "But saying that, did I think we were going to be where we are now? No. Let's understand that."

A downward slide

In retrospect, one of his biggest miscalculations, he admits, is expecting too much from his five-man freshman class, which was ranked No. 3 in the country by Scout.com. John Henson, Dexter Strickland, Leslie McDonald and David and Travis Wear were all talented players, but "what I failed to see was [the ramifications] of making so many of them change [positions]," he said.

Strickland, a shooting guard who committed when he was a junior, was slated to play point guard his senior year at Elizabeth, N.J., St. Patrick High - which was why Williams thought he could back up starting Tar Heels point guard Larry Drew II this season. But then Duke recruit Kyrie Irving, a point guard, transferred into Strickland's high school, keeping him at shooting guard and from learning the ballhandling position.

Meanwhile, Williams agreed that 6-foot-10 post John Henson could play small forward, a position the teenager and his family thought he would play at the next level - and UNC needed him to play well, considering they had so few options there.

"He wanted to be a perimeter player, and that was part of our deal in recruiting, and I try to be honest in recruiting," Williams said. The results, though, were disastrous. Fifty practices into the season, both Strickland and Henson were still getting confused on plays, and struggling to be consistent. Exacerbating the problems were injuries to multiple teammates (nine total Tar Heels had missed at least one game, by the end of the regular season), so no one ever knew who they would be playing beside on a daily basis. Henson eventually moved to power forward in February, but by then, the damage had been done.

After an 11-3 start - during which, senior Marcus Ginyard said, the team got by on sheer talent rather than hard work or determination - the downward spiral began. First was the overtime loss at College of Charleston. Then came three ACC defeats in a row, at Clemson and to Georgia Tech and Wake Forest.

Defense was sporadic. Turnovers came in waves. The transition game seemed a distant memory.

Williams and his staff started looking through practice plans from 5, 10, 15 years ago, trying to find inspiration. "We said, 'Are leaving anything out here? Are we teaching anything differently? Are we missing something?' " Williams said.

All the while, they still found themselves having to try to teach effort rather than execution.

"I've showed this year's team more examples of lack of intensity than I've showed any team," Williams said. "I've tried to convince them that it's not just something we're making up ... You say 'you've got to box out,' and they say, 'I did box out.' Well, then they look at the tape and see that they didn't. So we've spent more time showing them that part of it, and talking about that I shouldn't have to coach effort...than how to do things."

Outside distractions

As difficult as things were on the court for Williams, they weren't easy off of it, either. After three doctors' opinions, had shoulder surgery in November.

In December, the media and blogosphere blamed him for getting a Presbyterian fan kicked out of the Smith Center (although he says he only asked security to see if the fan had tickets for that section behind the bench). In February, he apologized for comparing his team's struggles with the Haiti disaster.

Asked if his confidence, like his team's, has been shaken, he said: "I don't think so - but I guess you could say it is, because I say 'think so.' "

He turned to several people, including Bobcats coach Larry Brown, former assistant Jerry Green, and Dr. Dick Coop - a sports psychologist who taught Williams at Carolina - for advice. Their message: don't doubt yourself.

"I've tried to remind him - his greatest strength is his belief in what he does, and he's relentless in making kids do what he knows is right, and he's had unbelievable success," Brown said. "I don't think he's been fair to himself, because you don't lose the talent he's lost and expect to be at the level that he's been accustomed to. But I do think he's a better coach today than he was in September...and that he'll learn from all of this, and become better, still."

He's trying. In recent practices, players said Williams has been more involved and upbeat than ever, pushing, cajoling and teaching: "Coach will never give up...that's one of the reasons he's the best coach out there," senior Deon Thompson said.

Indeed, Williams insists that the underclassmen on this team will learn the work ethic that has become the staple of his teams, pointing out that Lawson, Ellington and even Green played with more effort at the end of their careers.

And although Williams has been focused on the ACC tournament - and whether his team can be the first ACC team to win four games in four days and earn an automatic NCAA bid - he's also been pondering the future, and how he might shape teams differently.

"In my mind, there is no substitute for being able to shoot the basketball; so it might even change the way we recruit," he said. "I think you can take a specialist every now and then, or somebody that is a really good player but doesn't shoot as well and can still be good - but you can't get caught where you have everybody just struggle so much.

"I think we will still play fast, and perhaps even try to play faster. ... But we will continue to look at the way we coach."

Barring an unexpected outcome, Williams said he'll look back at this season as "the biggest frustration and the biggest disappointment of my professional life." But it will also motivate him to work harder to find ways to make his team work harder - adding a new chapter, so to speak, to the book he's already written.

"What I've missed most are the feelings in the locker room, after those successful games," he said. "...The looks on [the players'] faces when things are going well. Hopefully, that will be what fuels us into never letting this happen again."

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