Winning title nothing compared to rebuilding
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Think winning a national title was Roy Williams' toughest challenge in coaching? Think again.
This is it. Rebuilding North Carolina after it lost its top seven scorers off the 2005 championship roster is harder.
"It's unchartered waters,'' Williams said. "I've never done it. Neither has anyone else. No team in North Carolina has ever lost this many."
According to North Carolina's sports information department, no national champ has ever lost all five starters the next season. The team that came closest to that mark was the 1977 Indiana Hoosiers, which had to replace four of five starters after the undefeated '76 championship season.
To get a sense of how difficult this will be for Williams -- at least this season -- look at the stats. Senior forward David Noel returns as the top scorer at 3.9 points a game. The only other players who even got into a game last season are senior forward Byron Sanders (0.8 ppg), junior wing Reyshawn Terry (2.3 ppg), guard Quentin Thomas (0.8 ppg) and guard Wes Miller (1.1 ppg).
Sure, the Tar Heels brought in a stud in 6-foot-9 forward Tyler Hansbrough and complemented him with a solid stable of freshmen classmates in wings Danny Green and Marcus Ginyard, forward Mike Copeland and guard Bobby Frasor. But the team's inexperience and the lack of a reliable scorer makes it even tougher to predict how the Tar Heels will fare and whether they could land in the NCAAs at season's end.
"It's the hardest challenge I've had,'' Williams said.
Don't believe him? Well, you should. Williams hasn't even stopped to savor his elusive title since winning it last April in St. Louis, save a halftime ceremony on Sept. 17 to receive the championship rings at a UNC football game.
He said that was the first time -- the very first time -- that he realized how "neat it was'' to win the title. That response prompted his wife, Wanda, according to Williams, to question what was it all about if it took this long to enjoy the moment.
Instead, Williams enjoyed the road for the past six months and his hard work is paying off with, arguably, the top recruiting class in the country (yes, maybe better than Ohio State's).
Before we even get to the recruiting, you should understand that Williams seriously didn't know all four of his NBA-level underclassmen were going to enter the draft until the day after the title game. He knew in January that Rashad McCants was gone and said he had figured out during the season that Raymond Felton would bolt, too. As the NCAA Tournament run continued, he could tell Marvin Williams was on a roll and was being talked about as a potential top pick and that he would probably declare (although Roy Williams said Marvin didn't want to leave).
Sean May, though, was the one who said he was going to return for his senior season. The reality was, though, that May's stock couldn't have been any higher after he ripped through the Tournament and became the MVP of the Final Four after averaging 22.3 points and 10.7 rebounds a game in the six games.
Williams said he got a phone call from May two nights after the title game. Williams was on his way back from recruiting in Virginia (to see Oak Hill Academy (Va.) guard Tywon Lawson). When Williams got back home, he talked to May, and that's when May made his decision that he was going to leave, too.
"That was the first time we discussed it,'' Williams said.
Marvin Williams went No. 2. Felton went No. 5. May was drafted No. 13 and McCants went No. 14 overall.
"I didn't think we were going to lose all four -- thought possibly two, maybe a third, but not all four,'' Williams said. "All four kids made the right decision, though."
Long before the NBA draft, Williams was out on the road, working feverishly to recruit a stellar class. He said he met assistant Joe Holladay in the parking lot at 6 a.m. the Wednesday morning after the title game -- only about 29 hours after the final buzzer -- for that drive to Virginia. He then traveled for 17 days in April.
The summer was just as brutal. Williams was a veteran of the red-eye flights. He went to Seattle, where he was trying to get a commitment from Seattle Prep's Spencer Hawes (who ultimately committed to Washington). He would go back-to-back to California on red-eyes in September, ultimately getting Alex Stepheson, a 6-foot-8 forward out of Harvard-Westlake High in North Hollywood, Calif., and 6-8 Deon Thompson out of Torrance, Calif.
The haul of commitments also includes Lawson, the next Carolina point guard, 6-4 Wayne Ellington out of The Episcopal Academy (Merion, Pa.) and most recent, 6-9 Brendan Wright out of Brentwood, Tenn. The only non-high profile commitment has been a local product, 6-6 William Graves out of Greensboro, N.C.
Williams can't comment on any of these players, but he can discuss the importance of this class.
"It was the most critical," Williams said, more so than when he signed Nick Collison, Kirk Hinrich and Drew Gooden at Kansas. Collison and Hinrich played in consecutive Final Fours under Williams, including the 2003 title game.
"We played Monday night, came back for the celebration Tuesday and then all the coaches and their wives went out as a staff. Got home at 10:30 p.m. and then we were on the road the next day in the morning,'' Williams said.
"I've always worked hard,'' Williams added. "And last month, I was out there for 22 days.''
Why? Because even at North Carolina, Williams has to be hands-on, putting a face on the program. And it was never more crucial than this past spring, summer and early fall.
"This is the only way I feel comfortable [recruiting],'' Williams said.
And don't expect Williams to stop and catch his breath just because of the haul of players he has corralled. He said this will be the norm for years to come because of the new NBA draft rule in which players must be 19 years old and one year out of high school. That means more college players are likely to bolt after one or two years.
"The reality is that at our level, you'll be recruiting like a junior college team,'' Williams said. "Your team is going to turn over drastically every two years. I really believe that. It's not good for us, but that's the reality.''
The Tar Heels lost five players early to the NBA draft if you include J.R. Smith, a signed player who went directly to the league from high school.
"That's five players in the NBA who could be playing for me this season,'' Williams said. "If this were 10-15 years ago, then the only player that probably would have left would have been Rashad McCants. This is a completely different world.''
Expect the world around Chapel Hill to be a bit off its axis, too. The Tar Heels went to the Bahamas for Labor Day weekend but the trip, according to Williams, wasn't that fruitful, since they only had four practices. He didn't want to practice without the freshmen and he couldn't do that until school started. Then injuries to Frasor and Copeland limited their participation on the trip.
"It was better than nothing but it didn't help nearly as much as we thought,'' Williams said.
Copeland is still out with a knee injury. Ginyard has been hampered by a wrist injury in practice.
That doesn't mean the Tar Heels are slowing down in practice. Williams said he still plans on running his secondary break because he questions how well this team can score.
"A lot of my friends in the coaching profession have questioned if we should run,'' Williams said. "But I still want to be a fast-paced team. I'm in this for the long haul and I recruited the four [new players] so they could be in this system.
"The freshmen can fit into it,'' Williams said. "If you ask me what's our biggest concern, then it's 'How can we score?' We have no proven scorers at all. That means we have to play faster to get easy buckets. I'll be criticized if we don't win but if we have to score against a set defense, then we could get shut out.''
Williams said he was discouraged after Tuesday's practice, the first time he has felt down this fall. Energy was lacking and he said he has been throwing so much at the players that they might not be absorbing it all.
He hasn't put his players into defined roles yet, but he knows that Thomas and Frasor will share the point. Noel will be the strong man inside, with Sanders and Terry helping, too. Hansbrough is the gem of the bunch, with his ability to get to the offensive backboard. Williams said the first three shots of practice were missed on the first day and Hansbrough grabbed each one for an offensive putback. Ginyard, once healthy, and Green should be productive wings, although Williams said he's not thrilled with Green's defensive prowess yet. Copeland will give the Tar Heels another body inside once he's back.
Keeping Hansbrough out of foul trouble will be paramount.
"I've never had a freshman with such an appetite for the ball as him,'' Williams said.
So, Williams continues his own adjustment to his new team, one that requires different tactics than a year ago.
"Coach knows he has to be more patient and he's teaching a whole lot more,'' Terry said. "I think he's enjoying this for the most part.''
Thomas said the best thing about this squad is how coachable they are, so far. For the Tar Heels, they hope there is more to them than just being well-coached. They'll need to score, too. But the feeling on campus is that this group will be fan favorites as everyone rallies around the underdog.
"There will be some fans that really rally around this group and will love the young kids, because they will play extremely hard,'' Williams said. "But we can't stand much adversity. We can't get a couple of guys hurt.''
Williams said when he met with the team two years ago for the first time, he told them that if they listen to him in year one, they would make the NCAA Tournament. He said if he got them some help, which he did in the form of Marvin Williams, then in year two, they could "win the whole thing.'' He had a core group of seniors in Jawad Williams, Jackie Manuel and Melvin Scott to back him up.
"This year you can't say that,'' Williams said.
What you can say is that Williams is facing his most challenging task as a head coach, just six months after everyone thought he had finally climbed that mountain.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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