Thad: Coach of the Year

North Carolina's victory over Maryland Sunday night means that Carolina now will at a minimum have a chance to play for a share of a regular season conference title next Saturday against Duke, and can finish no worse than a tie for second in the final standings.

Carolina's twelfth win against two defeats should also have solidified one more thing: no matter what happens from here on out, Roy Williams must be considered the Atlantic Coast Conference Coach of the Year.

Consider this: Since the league went to a sixteen game season in the 1991-92 campaign, no school had ever gone from five or fewer regular season league wins to twelve or more the following season—until now.

By any standard, it has been a remarkable turnaround from 2010 to 2011. Moreover, Carolina has pulled this off despite losing four players penciled in by most everyone twelve months ago to be significant contributors, if not starters on this team, due to transfer and suspension, as well as a fifth player to NBA early entry.

Those departures in some cases hurt the Tar Heels in basketball terms and in other cases just hurt feelings. But in all cases, Williams and his staff have just gotten on with things, making no excuses. By the turn of the year it was pretty clear that Williams had assembled a team that could be competitive and likely successful in this year's ACC, but just about everyone (including me) thought there would be more potholes on the road to success.

Instead, Carolina has just gone out and won games. It hasn't always been pretty, but that's a testament to the job Williams has done with this group. The success has generated new, higher expectations about what this team might be able to do in March. No one knows just how far this team might go, but everyone of a Carolina blue persuasion is looking forward to seeing the journey.

How did the clouds over the program lift? Why did the fun come back? Of course it wasn't all Williams's doing, or that of any other particular person. But I think Williams deserves tremendous credit for four moves that shaped where the team is today.

First, the decision to suspend Will Graves for the year. In a sense this was a non-decision, because Graves was already on his final warning for violation of school and team policies. Nonetheless, it took some guts to follow through with it. Graves might have been a key player for this team, and his loss hurt and in my view still hurts, more than that of any of the other used-to-be Tar Heels (unless you count Ed Davis).

I'm sure it did not make Williams happy to end Graves's career prematurely. But in doing so he re-asserted the integrity of the program and sent a clear message about the expectations and responsibilities of being a Carolina basketball player.

Second, and more complex, the way Williams handled the Larry Drew II situation. Clearly this had been a difficult situation for a long time, with complexities that outsiders cannot really comprehend. What is clear is that whatever issues may have been in play with the people around Drew, Williams cared about his player, and was willing to bend over backwards to protect Drew from criticism. Indeed, many Carolina fans think that Williams stuck with Drew as a starter for too long, and was far too kind to Drew in public commentary about his performances this season.

But consider some benefits of the way Williams handled matters. First, Kendall Marshall was allowed to develop in the first part of the season without the pressure of being the starter or the anointed savior. Second, Marshall was given the chance to earn his starting role on the court, which he surely did. Third, Williams made the switch after a performance so abject (at Georgia Tech) that no reasonable onlooker would have denied a shake-up was warranted.

Consequently, when Marshall became the starter, there was no controversy, and no question about the legitimacy of his taking over the role. Likewise, when Drew decided to leave the program a couple of weeks later, no one could reasonably say Drew had not been given a fair shot this year, or that Williams had been trying to run Drew off. All the facts pointed in just the opposite direction.

Hence the unanimous opinion in the locker room and around the program that whatever considerations caused Drew to leave the program, that decision was 100 percent on him, and not Williams. If that had not been the case, it's hard to believe the Tar Heels would have responded so well to having a long-time starter quit the team.

The third key move is the way Williams handled Harrison Barnes and his early struggles. At this point, everyone knows that naming Barnes a first-team All-American before his first college game was ridiculous and unhelpful to the player. And, everyone knows Barnes seriously struggled through much of the first part of the season. Lastly, everyone now knows that Barnes has been playing much better, that at times he has been not just solid but dominant, and that he is a proven clutch player at this level.

It's easy to overlook the subtle role Williams played in this transformation. He didn't panic when Barnes struggled early on or publicly complain that his freshman wasn't living up to the hype. Instead, he consistently expressed confidence in Barnes's abilities and tried to explain the process Barnes was undergoing of learning to adjust to this level. He didn't jerk him out of the starting lineup even when it seemed Reggie Bullock was being much more productive on a per minute basis. He didn't shrink from letting Barnes take the big shots at the biggest spots at the end of the game. Instead, the public message he sent was that Barnes was a special young person with a high likelihood of being a special player, and that in time he would get there.

That approach—combined of course with much coaching advice on the specifics of the game, day in and day out—has paid off. Williams had clearly thought through several different possibilities of how Barnes's first season might go, and didn't act shocked or dismayed when this particular scenario began playing itself out. That is the wisdom of an experienced coach who has seen a lot of great players develop in different ways.

The fourth coaching move Williams deserves credit for is more cumulative, and it comes down to this fact: this Carolina team wins, and expects to win, close games. Looking back at the close games Carolina pulled out at Virginia and at Miami, and at home to Virginia Tech and Boston College, games that came down to a single possession in the last minute, a common thread emerges: at the critical moments, Carolina played good team defense, and avoided critical mistakes. The Tar Heels did not beat themselves, and made it tough for other team to do so.

Of course, Barnes could have missed his huge shot at Miami, and Malcolm Delaney and Reggie Jackson might have hit their potential game-winning shots in the Smith Center on a different night. If so, Carolina's record would be a little less pretty. But consider this: Barnes was open on his shot, and Delaney and Jackson were not.

When the shot goes in for you one night and the other guys misses, you may just be lucky. When it works out consistently that way, it probably means you are also good, and that you are on a well-coached team that is prepared for late-game situations.

This does not mean that we can simply expect Carolina to win all close ones the rest of the way. What we can say is it would be surprising if this team lost on a total defensive breakdown or a mental meltdown offensively, and that this team expects to get it done at the end if need be. You can't ask for more than that.

Likewise, no one could reasonably ask for a better coaching job than Roy Williams has turned in this year, regardless of what happens the rest of the way. There are a lot of questions to be answered about how the ACC season will turn out this year. Judging who the league's coach of the year is should not be one of them.

Thad has returned to Inside Carolina in 2011 as a regular columnist. He is the author of "More Than a Game: Why North Carolina Basketball Means So Much To So Many" (now available to be read for free online here: More Than a Game - ONLINE). A Chapel Hill native, he operated the manual scoreboard formerly located at the end of the UNC bench between the 1982-83 and 1987-88 seasons in Carmichael and the Smith Center. Thad wrote regularly for Inside Carolina and from 1995 to 2005. He's an associate professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond.

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