CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Roy Williams is no stranger to great teams, or great groups of kids. He has won two national championships and made it to three Final Fours in his time on the North Carolina bench.
That’s why his praise of the 2015-16 Tar Heels was telling during his first radio show of the season on Monday.
“It’s the kind of group I thought it was going be,” Williams said at Top of the Hill. “I just love the kids.”
This year’s team, led by a bevy of experienced and talented juniors and seniors, enters the season ranked No. 1 in multiple polls. While that alone makes the group stand out, it’s more about the players themselves to Williams.
“I’m telling you, we’ve got as good a group of kids as I’ve ever coached,” Williams said. “They’re fun to be with.”
UNC returns four starters, including All-America point guard Marcus Paige, as well as nine of its top-10 scorers from a year ago. That’s not to say the group comes without its flaws, however.
“Their focus doesn’t stay where I want it to be all the time on the practice court,” Williams said.
How they respond to those mistakes, though, is part of what could make this a special group.
“They could make a mistake, but it would be a mistake,” Williams said. “It would not be a habit or some bad habits that they have.”
Of course, the potential for another banner to hang in the Smith Center adds to the value of these Tar Heels.
“We’ve got a chance,” Williams said. “We need to stay healthy, we need to get Marcus back out there on the court, there’s no question. The kids, during the course of practice, I think today was practice either No. 24 or 25, and there’s probably two practices I’ve gotten upset, and the rest of the time they’ve done some good things.”
As uplifting personalities, Williams admires them. As skillful players, Williams appreciates them.
What stands out the most about the team?
“The best thing we have is the quality of the kids as human beings.”
How did your summer go?
“It was a good summer. We had a great camp. We worked hard in the recruiting period. I got to spend some time with my grandsons, went up to Charlotte last weekend and saw them at Halloween, so that part’s good. It’s just the knees not being where I want them to be right now.”
How does Marcus Paige’s injury change your team?
“First of all, everybody’s got to lift their own level of play. They’ve got to have better concentration, better focus; they’ve got to play better. If everyone plays better, then we’ll be able to survive. And then when Marcus does come back, they’ll have the confidence in what they’ve done, and then they can continue to play better. He’s our best player. He’s our scorer, he’s our best defender, he’s our best shooter, we do need him out there, there’s no question. But even in the exhibition game the other night, we didn’t play Justin Jackson, so we got Nate Britt, Kenny Williams and Luke Maye, all of those guys a little bit more time and hopefully that’ll help us down the line as well.”
Could it be beneficial to have these guys step up long-term?
“It depends. If everybody gets more confidence and plays better, it’ll be alright as long as Marcus comes back and is able to jump out there and not miss too much when he does come back. You said it best: I’d rather have him out there. It’d be a lot better if he was out there and everybody else was playing well too.”
Paige’s injury should take about a month to heal, correct?
“Yeah, 3-to-4 weeks. In fact, somebody at this table asked me, ‘We saw that Marcus took his cast off, does that mean anything?’ And I said ‘Yeah, he was running sprints, he doesn’t need to wear the cast while he’s running,’ but that’s all it meant. It’s 3-to-4 weeks; it could be three, it could be six.”
What was the main takeaway from Friday’s exhibition against Guilford?
“I did want to get us in front of a crowd. We had a really good workout against Vanderbilt in the closed scrimmage, but we’re trying to get, before the start of the season, get them out there in front of the people, because a lot of times they’ll lose their focus and their concentration and the shot looks a lot better than it would normally, that kind of thing. So I think that helped us. We did, and I told them this, we did probably the worst job of boxing out than in any exhibition game that I’ve ever played, and that’s something that I think has got to be crucially important to us all the time. So we’ve got to better than that.
We had a lot of different guys involved, I think that was good, as I said earlier without Marcus and Justin. I guess Brice was our second-leading scorer last year, so Justin was our third-leading scorer, so that’s two of our three leading scorers, but you wouldn’t have known it because our guys weren’t looking around like ‘Where’s Marcus?’ or ‘Where’s Justin?’ So I think they had some freedom, and I think that they were aggressive, and I liked that part.”
Does the preseason poll matter to you in any way?
“I’d rather be picked No. 1 as opposed to 235, there’s no question about that, but I told the guys, ‘Everybody thinks we’re going to be pretty good, I think we’re going to be pretty good, so let’s put in the work to make sure we are.’ We challenged them a little bit like that, and you’ve heard me say this before, but it’s redundant because I’ve said it so many times, but in 2005, we were No. 1 or 2. And I knew we were going to be good because we had everybody returning, and you were adding somebody. We had Marvin Williams as a pretty big addition.
“In 2009, Danny (Green) and Tywon (Lawson) and Wayne (Ellington) tested the waters, and Tyler Hansbrough had already decided he was coming back, and all of those guys came back, and I knew we were going be pretty good because we added Tyler Zeller and Ed Davis. Now Tyler Zeller got hurt and didn’t play much that year, but Ed Davis was sensational for us. This year we didn’t add that top-10 McDonald’s All-American-type player, but I still think that we can be pretty good.
“It’s a flip of the coin right now. I don’t think that there’s anybody head-and-shoulders above everybody else. I can make the case that we can be third or fourth in our own league, but at the same time in basketball, you get to play. We don’t have to stay up on Tuesday nights and find out where we’re ranked or anything like that. You get to play so much at it. I don’t get too carried away with it, one way or the other.”