Williams can finally relieve the pressure
ST. LOUIS In one of life's little ironies, we learned Sunday that Roy Williams is a Yankees fan.
When Williams was 7 years old growing up in Asheville, N.C., his family got its first TV set. They turned the thing on and Roy watched Mickey Mantle hit home runs from both sides of the plate and pull off a drag-bunt single. From that day forward, his team was the Yankees.
Isn't that a hoot? Ringless Roy, the basketball coach who will try again Monday to win the elusive Big One, backs the professional sports franchise that has seemingly won the Big One a million times.
He doesn't look good in pinstripes. Williams' head-coaching career aligns him much more closely with the Red Sox and Phil Mickelson.
Last year was the breakthrough year for them, but you wonder whether the North Carolina coach is too star-crossed to ride their coattails.
Consider: The all-time mortal lock in sports (ignoring the gold medal "loss" in '72) was the American men's Olympic basketball team until last year in Athens, when they took home a humiliating bronze. You Know Who was an assistant coach on that team. We should've smelled trouble when Larry Brown put Ringless Roy on his staff.
OK, that's a cheap shot, and not even a serious shot. But it's the kind of thing Carolina fans and Williams will have to hear until he shuts everyone up by winning one.
With the Sox and Lefty off the schneid, Williams is the current poster boy for Close But No Cigar. Ol' Roy is the loveable ... uh, likeable ... well, tolerable loser personified.
Who roots for the Yankees.
But the irony of that rooting interest is lost, at least publicly, on Williams. He's simply not going to Go There, into the pit of his stomach, where you know a monster of unfulfillment growls.
We know it's there because the coaches who have been there before him guys like Jim Boeheim and Jim Calhoun and Gary Williams will tell you so after they break through. Once they cut the net on an April Monday night, it really is different.
"It changes the way other people think about you," said Gary Williams, whose Maryland team won it all in 2002. "It doesn't necessarily make you a better coach. Roy Williams, going to the Final Four like he has with two different schools, has shown he's a great coach. In the coaching fraternity, coaches know who the coaches are.
In picking the national championship game on Monday night, I am thrilled that we have the two best teams squaring off. I still don't understand why college football can't get its act together and have a playoff to determine the best team on the field.
That said, North Carolina and Illinois should go toe-to-toe. Both teams are so talented and both coaches have done a great job getting their teams here.
I really feel the big names, the Mays, Feltons, Browns, Heads and on and on will negate each other. I feel guys like Roger Powell of the Illini and Jawad Williams of the Tar Heels could be pivotal players in this game.
Another key could be Marvin Williams off the bench for North Carolina. He should be a future lottery pick and he has struggled in the last two games. I really believe he will pick it up and come through in this contest.
I have a lot of respect for what Bruce Weber and Illinois have accomplished this season. In the end, I see a Maalox Masher going to the wire. I picked North Carolina after last year's Final Four and I am not going to change now.
North Carolina 79, Illinois 76.
"But the first thing a lot of people thought of when Roy won (Saturday) night was, 'Oh boy, he'll be nervous Monday.' If you win it, it does stop the questions.
"Here's the thing: Nobody can ever take it away from you once you win a championship."
And until you win one, you try to shrug off the questions and minimize the topic. The deflector shields were up Sunday, to the surprise of no one. If you really thought Roy Williams was going to sit down with the national media and cough up how much a national title would mean to him not to North Carolina, not to his players, not to the fans, but to him, Ol' Roy you engaged in wildly wishful thinking.
"They'd have to come up with another question to ask me at this time of year," Williams said, which was as close as he'd come to addressing the relief he'd feel to finally win one.
Until that day comes, he'll continue coaching with an anvil of expectation hanging over his silver head. And the anvil takes on extra weight this year, in the form of his North Carolina team's immense talent.
His roster is rife with NBA players so much so that the Tar Heels are favored over a 37-1 Illinois team that has been ranked No. 1 since Dec. 6.
So, win or lose, Williams is prepping himself for doubters and diminishers. A man with a raging, Dean Smith-ish wish to control perceptions of his program, his players and himself, Ol' Roy knows what some folks are going to say about him.
"In this case, Illinois is extremely talented, and yet the perception is, if we win, gosh, you're supposed to win," Williams said. "'Roy, if you couldn't win with that group, you ain't ever going to win.' ...
"They can say anything they want about me. If we win it, they're going to say, 'God, you had to have that good a team to win.' That's fine with me."
Williams has proven he's a fine coach. He's won 470 games in just 17 seasons. He's won 40 NCAA Tournament games, which is tied for seventh all time. He's had six 30-win seasons.
But he's never won the last game. This being America, where winners are celebrated and runners-up are forgotten, that matters.
Williams came close four times at Kansas, starting in 1991 with a loss in the championship game to Duke.
"If Grant Hill doesn't jump over the moon to catch that lob from Bobby Hurley, maybe we would have won that one," Williams said. "I don't know what I did or failed to do to allow Grant Hill to catch that lob."
He came close in '93, losing to eventual champion North Carolina in the national semifinals. He came close in 2002, losing to eventual national champion Maryland in the semifinals. And he came agonizingly close in '03, losing to Syracuse in the title game when Hakim Warrick swatted the potential tying shot by Michael Lee out of bounds in the final seconds.
"That one hurts more, because we were 12-of-30 from the foul line," Williams said.
But the one that probably hurts most was the 1997 Kansas team. That was a brilliant defensive team that shared the basketball and pressed the attack at all times not unlike the current Illinois group. The Jayhawks were 34-1 when they lost in the Sweet 16 to an Arizona team that had seemingly sold its soul to the gods of basketball that spring, on its way to the national title.
"That's the team I feel the biggest void for," Williams acknowledged.
Now that he's at North Carolina, where the recruiting is almost on autopilot, Ol' Roy will win it one year. Maybe more than once. But if he doesn't get it done Monday night, he'll have to hear the same questions next March.
The topic won't die until he kills it.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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