Twenty-one games into the college basketball season, a frustrated Hall of Fame coach says he's struggling with trying to get through to his team.
With the clock ticking and an at-large NCAA bid slipping away, North Carolina coach Roy Williams knows he must find some way to better teach, push and inspire his Tar Heels - or else. Sunday's 15-point loss at home to Virginia dropped his team to 13-8, 2-4 in the ACC, and the message hasn't sunk in.
"We've had 61 practices now, and the things I've preached the previous 21 years seemed to work, and the things I preach this year that are the same as those 21 haven't worked," Williams said Monday. "... I'm at my wit's end, but at the same time, I still have to keep trying to think of something. I still have to keep working, and I still have to make sure they keep working. If not, we don't have any chance whatsoever."
Williams has tried a little bit of everything with his freshman-laden team, from patiently reviewing the basics to running his players to exhaustion to reinforce the errors of their ways.
"He's definitely been more intense [lately] about the way he's approached practice and stopped the spoon-feeding of the younger guys and trying to teach them so much," senior forward Deon Thompson said. "Because by now, you've got to know the things that he's been teaching."
And yet they don't. The day before they lost to Virginia, for example, Williams said the coaches went "crazy" in practice emphasizing defensive balance. Against the Cavaliers, however, "we didn't have defensive balance," Williams said, allowing the Cavaliers to shoot 51.9 percent from the field.
Similar lessons have gone unlearned on at least three crucial coaching points:
UNC needs to stop dribble penetration, yet UVa guard Sylven Landesberg finished with 29 points, most coming on drives to the basket.
When they thrive, the Tar Heels move the ball quickly upcourt. Sunday, they produced only four-fast-break points.
Williams stresses the need to maintain consistent spacing to increase the Tar Heels' quality of shots. Failing in this area again, they shot only 35.7 percent against Virginia.
Exacerbating the problem has been an acknowledgement by players that their sense of urgency has wavered game to game. Sophomore point guard Larry Drew II said that players weren't as focused or as intense in practices leading up to Sunday's game as they were in preparing for their 77-63 win at N.C. State last week.
The "lack of intensity" is a phrase thrown around often by this UNC team, but attempts to identify the root cause remain slippery.
"Just emotion, heart when you're playing," Drew said. "I'm trying to put it into words, but it's something that any athlete has, anybody who wants to be the best and just competing - going out there and laying everything on the court, the field, whatever you want to do. ... And I think some guys, they don't have that right now. They're not showing it, not bringing it."
Eric Montross, a standout center on UNC's 1992-93 national championship team, provides courtside commentary now as the Tar Heels' radio analyst. Montross said it's clear that the team, which has five freshmen and only two experienced starters, does not suffer from a lack of talent.
"If I never saw the Michigan State game [which UNC won 89-82 on Dec. 1], or the halves of some other games that indicate their potential, I'd say this is a ragged bunch ... that it's going to take some doing for them to get better," he said. "But they're a good group of players, and for whatever reason, there are some serious lines that are cut, ... somewhere the message is getting distorted."
Williams - who has led his teams at Kansas and UNC to at least one NCAA Tournament victory for 20 straight seasons - said he has never been this deep in a season while still trying to tweak how, and what, he's coaching. Tearing up during his postgame news conference Sunday night, he said it was because he was so "ticked off."
"I think every year, you make different changes - some of them subtle, some of them bigger changes," he said. "We're not running the ball like I like to run it. We're playing zone, [and] we've changed three or four different offenses that we've tried to use, rather than sticking with one that I've done most of my career."
Williams was quick to blame himself for not getting through to his team. Thompson, however, was quick to defend his coach, pointing out that Williams has won two national titles in the past five years and that the problems lie with the players.
"Guys just need to care more," Thompson said. "[They] just need to care more about this jersey, the name that we wear on the front of our chest. It just means so much in the history, and it represents so much, and we're just not representing Carolina basketball that way right now."
He added that he and fellow senior Marcus Ginyard have tried to take on leadership roles to rally the team, "but guys have to respond," Thompson said. "Even if you get mad, it's still up to them to respond to what you say. So it's a two-way street."
Williams said he's not concerned that his team will splinter into any cliques. Asked if there was some sort of divide within the team that's affecting its play, Thompson said no.
"In the past - we all aren't the same as we were in the past, when everyone was so close off the court," Thompson said. "But ... it's two different classes - a whole bunch of younger guys, and a few older guys. So it is a little more divided, but I don't think that has to do with anything on the court."
Still, something must get fixed, and fast.
Williams traveled to Charlotte on Sunday night to visit his new grandson. But Williams didn't sleep much, worrying about how to break his team out of its rut.
The players took Monday off, but Williams said he's determined that they'll have two great turnaround practices before playing at Virginia Tech on Thursday.
"I've lived a pretty charmed life," he said. "Kids have always just bought into what we said, and it seemed to work. It hasn't seemed to work as well this year, so we just have to keep trying."
Time, however, is running out. With 10 games remaining in the regular season, Carolina must go .500 the rest of the way just to finish 7-9 in the ACC, and even that mark historically has not guaranteed an at-large NCAA bid.
"I haven't really thought about that," Thompson said of the possibility of the Tar Heels missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time in the Williams era. "What's March without Carolina? ... I don't - yeah, it's a possibility."
Especially if Williams can't find a way to get through to his players.