HOUSTON – Forty minutes.
That’s all that separates Roy Williams from a third national championship. That’s one more than Dean Smith won, and it’s one that would elevate Williams into an exclusive class of coaches that includes names such as Wooden, Knight and Krzyzewski.
Furthermore, a win over Villanova on Monday night would elevate his tenure at North Carolina as arguably the best run since John Wooden’s dominance at UCLA ended over 40 years ago.
Since Williams arrived in Chapel Hill in 2003, no college coach has won more national championships (2) or NCAA Tournament games (36). His career 75.3 winning percentage in the NCAA Tournament ranks third all-time and his 80.0 winning percentage at UNC in the dance is the highest in ACC history.
Only five coaches have taken five teams to the national championship game: Adolph Rupp, Mike Krzyzewski, Smith, Wooden and now Williams.
And while he may not openly admit it, he wants this one badly. Not for any veiled response to criticism, which has been abundant and fierce of late, but simply because he’s as competitive as they come.
Assistant coach Steve Robinson once told the story of a recruiting visit with his boss to a prospect’s home. After saying their goodbyes and exiting the house, Williams hurried past Robinson to open the rental car’s door first, looking over at his assistant and claiming victory much in the way you would expect a man 40 years younger to act.
When Robinson said he didn’t realize it was a race, Williams told him, “It’s always a competition.”
There’s a passion to win that burns deep. That being said, don’t mistake that drive to win at anything and everything as the foundational basis for his coaching career. Plenty of people want to win. That’s not unique. What separates Williams is an ability to gain his players’ trust and build them up first as individuals, next as a team and only then as champions. Basketball is the vehicle, not the destination.
“Basketball is the easy part,” assistant coach Hubert Davis said on Sunday. “It’s about developing relationships and spending time with these kids, helping them on the court, in the class room and in life, and getting a front row seat of watching them being able to grow up.”
Take Kennedy Meeks, for example. A bruised knee during the preseason eventually forced the junior center out of the lineup in December, and his body returned to the court long before his confidence did. By his own admission, Meeks let the injury get him down and pull him away from his role as a veteran leader on this team.
Williams stayed on him, not letting up, not allowing him make excuses and pout.
“Coaching is trying things,” the 13th-year UNC head coach said. “Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. Kennedy went through a tough stretch. I kept trying to give him confidence because I wanted him to be a better player. Knock on wood, so far it's worked. Every coach does that.”
That’s Williams completely dismissing his role in keeping Meeks engaged and not letting him check out, which would have been detrimental to this group’s run to the Final Four. Meeks offered a different perspective, praising his head coach for his constant motivation.
“Coach is one of my greatest role models,” Meeks said. “Whether he’s criticizing me, whether he’s encouraging me, whether he’s giving me a compliment or whether he’s holding me accountable, I thank him for that.”
It’s that relentless molding of egos, personalities and talent, and not the in-game strategy or the large collection of timeouts in his back pocket, that allows Williams to win big as the season winds down. Anybody can win in December against weak competition. Williams is winning 75.9 percent of his games at UNC in March and April.
For some players, like Tyler Hansbrough and Marcus Paige, the coaching comes easy. For others, like Danny Green and Brice Johnson, it’s a daily grind to polish the rough edges into a finished product.
“He’s really good at developing kids,” director of player personnel Sean May said, “and that’s something he doesn’t get enough credit for. All of the years of being on top of Marcus and Brice is allowing them to be in this moment right now because they’re able to tap into those mistakes that they’ve made in the past. That’s why he’s able to get away with not having the most talented player in the country, but he’s always got really good teams.”
The end goal is always the same for Williams: coaching boys to become men, just like he learned from his mentor.
“He doesn’t look at it as just wins and losses,” Davis said. “You’ve got to recruit, but if you’ve got great players, you’re going to win some games. But he doesn’t look at it that way. He believes that if we’re only teaching them basketball, then we’re doing a disservice to them, their families and for the university.”
That philosophy shines a different light on the possibility of a third national championship on Monday, and why such a triumph wouldn’t change Williams’s mind about his place in UNC basketball’s hierarchy below Smith.
“I know he was a heck of a lot better,” Williams said. “I really believe that. Sometimes I try to be humble, all this stuff that people think is nice. I don't think I'm in the same league with Coach Smith, and I never will.”
That’s fair, although the list of coaches between Williams and the top of the college basketball mountain is shrinking each and every year.