Roy Williams was no happy camper Thursday night in Tallahassee, but relatively little was said to the players in a quiet UNC locker.
Instead, it was left to the players themselves to figure out what had gone wrong. On Friday, walk-on senior Phillip McLamb, along with Melvin Scott and Jawad Williams led the call for a team-only meeting to address the loss. "We figured we needed to get this thing under control as soon as possible," said Williams. "If we don't, we'll have another year just like last year. Nobody wants that--last year wasn't a good year, and we don't want that…. Everybody had some things they needed to get off their chest."
Key themes in those conversations, according to Williams and Jackie Manuel, included defense, not pointing the finger at one another when things go awry, accountability, and responsibility. "We've got to point the finger at ourselves and be more accountable for what we do," said Williams. "We've got to be accountable off the court as well, taking care of our bodies. We can't have guys staying up late, things like that, we've got to take care of things off the court so we can play well on the court."
But the key talking points in the Friday meeting were not fully realized in the first half Saturday, as the Tar Heels--again--let a double-digit lead melt away and surrendered 50 percent field goal shooting to Virginia. The players themselves realized the first half effort was unacceptable, even before Roy Williams reinforced the message at halftime. "At halftime we came in here, and actually got on each other a little bit before Coach Williams came in--he came in, yelled at us for a little bit, and then walked back out," said Williams. "From there, we knew what we had to do, or we'd be feeling sad again."
Yet Virginia drained its first four shots in the second half and briefly took the lead at 53-52--before a brief exchange between point guard Raymond Felton and his teammates that changed the game and possibly the season. "Raymond came out of the huddle and said `I'm about to set the tone, I need everybody behind me,'" recalled Sean May. "He pushed up on his man, and everybody got after it defensively, and then we opened the game up."
Carolina's renewed defensive intensity, coupled with a suddenly imposing second half Smith Center crowd, ended up forcing 12 second-half turnovers from Virginia. Those turnovers, combined with one of Carolina's better efforts on the defensive glass and much improved execution in the fast break were enough to help the Tar Heels pull away again, this time for good, despite 47 percent shooting for the game by the Cavaliers.
Leadership is clearly an important issue surrounding this Carolina team--there is no obvious charismatic personality on this team for whom setting the tone is second nature, and despite the wistfulness of many Carolina fans, George Lynch, Ademola Okulaja, and Steve Hale are not walking back through that door to fill the gap.
Even Roy Williams--perhaps unaware of the exchange between Felton and some of his teammates early in the second half--said Saturday that as much as he would liked to say he that he saw evidence of great leadership in the second half, he didn't. The guess here is that with this group of players, no single individual is likely to emerge as the pacesetter on and off the court.
Instead, this team is going to have to forge a different model of leadership, in which different personalities play different roles at different times. McLamb, once again proving that sometimes the most important people in a program are the ones you don't often read about, played his part Friday, and the team seems to be moving towards the realization that "hey, we've got to grow up, or we're going to be back in a bad place."
But leadership is needed on the court as well, and perhaps Felton will build on what happened Saturday and become the person his mates look to for the key word of exhortation or inspiration at critical junctures the rest of the season--even if he's not always the player to take the big shot at the big time.
For now, the good news is that Carolina got enough leadership in the wake of the Florida State loss to prevent a terrible loss from turning into a trigger that could have literally ruined the season. While execution and shot selection still have room for improvement, this is a very good, bordering on excellent offensive team by any reasonable measure, especially now that Rashad McCants has re-found his shooting confidence, hopefully for good.
Most of the variability in Carolina's performance rests on the defensive end. "We have a long way to go to be a great team," admits Jawad Williams. "Coach Williams is preaching defense to us, and we need to carry it over. We do it sometimes in practice, but we need to carry it over to the games for 40 minutes."
That clearly didn't happened in Tallahassee, and if Carolina's players are honest with themselves, it didn't quite happen Saturday either. The Tar Heels will see if they can take the next step in the maturation process by making it happen in the two vital conference games this week.
Thad Williamson is author of More Than a Game: Why North Carolina Basketball Means So Much To So Many, available at www.dollarsandsense.org/bookstore.html. You can email Thad at firstname.lastname@example.org.