Q&A with Matt Doherty

<i>Inside Carolina</i> was in Greensboro, N.C. on Sunday afternoon for ACC Operation Basketball and, along with other members of the media, spoke with North Carolina head coach Matt Doherty. Here is a transcript of the lengthy question and answer session.

Are you excited after what you saw last night?

Yeah, I'm excited. I want to be guarded. I'm definitely excited, but it was an intersquad scrimmage and I haven't watched the tape yet. I'm going to watch it tonight. But, yeah, I'm excited. No question. I think there were some exciting plays – exciting basketball – talented kids … who didn't play any defense. That's the thing I got to look at when I watch the film. Lack of experience, and we have some concerns – Sean's knees – and we need some experienced post players because we're going to play some big physical teams. Damion [Grant] did some nice things, Byron [Sanders] did some nice things. But I don't think they're ready to start and play in the ACC. So, we have some question marks, but there are a lot of things we can work with and that's the exciting thing.

What is the condition of Sean's knee?

As crazy as it is, his bad knee is almost fine, but his good knee is bad because it has tendonitis in it. Tendonitis is a thing that lingers – I don't think you can put a timetable on tendonitis. You just got to play through it, deal with it, and rest it when you can rest it. So, that's going to be a delicate situation.

Is there a time frame for when he's expected back?

No. I don't know if he'll be in full practice tomorrow.

How concerned are you that he's missed so much practice time?

Well, it's certainly has set him back and it's setting us back. We can have, as smart of a player as Sean is, but still you have to have the reps, the conditioning, the experience. He can sit on the sideline and say ‘this is where I'm supposed to go,' but it's different when you're actually out there on the floor. He's a very smart player, but he still needs to be on the floor doing it. So, yeah, it sets him back and it sets the team back … but we're not the only team dealing with injuries. Everyone's dealing with injuries.

How much will it change your game plan if you don't have Sean back at 100% when the season starts?

I think we'll have to consider going small, with Jawad [Williams] as a center and David Noel as a power forward. Unless Damion and Byron can continue to make great strides … I thought Damion was very good yesterday, but he has a hard time sustaining it. He's got to get in shape. Byron is getting better every day but he's got to be able to score when he gets inside with the basketball.

How's Raymond doing with the injury suffered last night?

I think he's fine. Reports are that it was just a rolled ankle. Afterwards I joked with him that he turned his ankle after the game was in hand so he can get all the sympathy from the women walking out, and he said he thought that was a good idea. He was smiling – Raymond is a tough kid. He'll be all right.

How has Raymond been dealing with the expectations?

Well, I think my expectations are probably different from your expectations. We realize he's a freshman. Playing for the state championship in high school is different than playing in the ACC championship and national championship. There are a lot of expectations on Raymond, but it is a team game. Raymond's not surrounded by experienced talent like Phil Ford or Kenny Smith were, or like some other freshmen point guards in our program or in the league. It's nice to have an experienced player to lean on on the floor. Kenny Smith had Michael Jordan, Sam Perkins and myself. Phil Ford had Mitch Kupchak, Tommy LaGarde, Walter Davis, John Kuester. Raymond doesn't have that so much. He's got sophomores, and Will and Jon. However, he is a pretty unique kid who has tunnel vision – and that's to win. I don't know if the expectations will bother him. I think he just has one thing on his mind, and that's winning. I think some of this other stuff will roll off his back. He's a real humble, down to earth kid – ‘yes sir, no sir' kind of kid. Yesterday I had coach [Doug] Wojcik take him out because he didn't draw a charge. Doug said to him ‘I took you out because you didn't draw a charge' and he responded ‘yes, sir.' Where other kids [in that situation] might cop an attitude. He only knows one speed. I tried to get him to slow down, telling him not to split those double teams late in the game because you could get a knee to a thigh or role an ankle – but he only knows one speed.

In terms of the team's expectations, what is one message you want to send to the fans?

Patience. And that's easier said than done, but we are in a rebuilding process at North Carolina. We have the youngest team North Carolina has ever had and maybe the youngest team the ACC has ever had. Two seniors, who haven't played a whole lot, no juniors, three sophomores and six freshmen – and all those six freshmen will contribute at some point, some more significantly than others.

But this seems to be an ideal year to be inexperienced since the ACC is so wide open …

I always look at the point guards. Who has got the experienced point guards? People talked about how young Arizona was last year, and they ended up being a highly ranked team. Well, they had an experienced point guard [in Jason Gardner] and then you look at [Luke] Walton, and he's like a big point guard, so they really had two experienced ball handlers. In our league, who has that? Duke has two, or maybe one and a half since Ewing didn't start last year. Maryland has two experienced guards in [Steve] Blake and Drew Nicholas. Clemson has Edward Scott. Virginia has an experienced point guard that I think no one is talking about. Todd Billet lit us up for 30 when I was at Notre Dame, and that's probably just what Virginia needs, a guy who is going to make good decisions, is not going to turn the ball over, will hit the open shot and is a tough scrappy leader. So I think that is the most important position in basketball. We have a talented one – an inexperienced one.

Is it a different environment for a freshman point guard than years ago because more is expected of a freshman nowadays?

I think so, but I also think Raymond has also been exposed to more. He's been exposed to more than a freshman had been 20 years ago. They travel more, there's more national events. He's played on TV before. One of your concerns is when these kids first hit the floor. We had over 14,000 last night, largest crowd for a Blue-White Game. So, how are they going to react in front of a crowd? Raymond, Rashad, David – they all looked pretty comfortable. Maybe 20 years ago there'd be more nerves because they've never played in front of a crowd like that. Now, they've never played in front of a crowd like that, but they've played on TV and they've played in front of crowds.

Where is the team now in terms of defense?

We worked a lot on defense in the preseason, and have probably spent more time on defense at this point of the year than we have in my previous two years, because it is so important – especially with a young team. And, again, I'm curious as to how we looked defensively last night. That's one of the biggest things high school players need to adjust to [when they get to college]. One is shot selection, because in high school they can take any shot they want to. Two is defense, getting in the defensive stance, seeing man and ball, defensive principles. And three is the intensity level of a college basketball game.

This year's freshmen seem more comfortable than last year's – why is that?

I think last year's group were thrown into the fire amidst tremendous expectations, all the streaks were in tact, all that kind of stuff. This group, the streaks are broken so there is less pressure, but I think some of these kids are a little bit more equipped to handle the pressure because I think they have had more worldly basketball experiences than last year's class did.

Talk a little about Rashad McCants …

Rashad has been injured a little bit (… he had a hamstring … then he had a knee slightly sprained …). He's missed probably 20 percent of practice. Offensively, he's very gifted, defensively he's still seeing trying to understand being in a defensive stance, seeing man and ball and every position on the defensive end. Offensively, he has a great feel. He can pass, he can shoot, he can post up. He'll take a bad shot every now and then, but as a coach you have to let some of that go, as long as players aren't selfish. Very smart player. High basketball IQ – he did some things yesterday that were very savvy offensively. Defensively, he needs to get better.

With Sean's injury, or Raymond and Rashad getting nicked up, any little nick like that could really impact the season …

Not that any one position is more important than the others, but where's the depth? We don't have as much depth at the center spot and we don't have as much depth at the point guard spot. But Jon and Raymond are the only point guards, and Sean is a very good post player, but behind him we don't have any experienced players. If Sean's healthy or in foul trouble, then there's a drop in experience level. It's kind of funny we're talking about Sean, yet he's a freshman.

What position long term is Sanders?

I'd say he's a forward. He's certainly not a center. Sean's more of a forward. But the college game is a little smaller …

Can you talk more about Sean?

Sean's been great. He's one of the smartest players I've ever coached. He's got great hands, can score inside and out. He runs well, he moves well, for a guy that carries 270 pounds.

Is that an ideal weight for him?

He's always been a pretty big kid. I don't ever want to put a number on a kid. I think it's ‘what are you effective with?' If he's effective at 270 then that's great, because he can really take advantage of that size. But if he's slowed in any way at 270, then we want him to lose some weight. Through the season, you find your level, whatever that weight is. Some kids can play at 270, some kids can't. He's a big-boned kid. I'm more concerned with body fat than I am with weight.

Last year you experimented with a lot of different lineups, is that something you'll have to do this year?

I don't want to jerk kids in and out of starting lineups, and I did that at the point guard spot last year because we were turning the ball over. Kind of like what Steve Spurrier has done [at QB] with the Redskins. And that's not good, you'd rather have the thing settled, so I hope that I'll have a starting lineup that I won't change a whole lot and then play nine or ten guys and as the season goes on shorten that bench a little bit to tighten it up. First give guys opportunities and see how they handle it, and then shorten the bench up a little bit towards the end of the season.

Since you don't have frontcourt depth, are you going to extend your defense more and go back to what you played when you were at Carolina?

We never really full-court pressed, only in late game situations when down. I'm not a full-court press guy. A lot of people talk about at the beginning of the season ‘we're going to press,' but all of a sudden they play against a good team and they shred it and then they say ‘whoops.' Even historically pressing teams don't press during the NCAA Tournament because you don't want to open up the court to a talented point guard. But in the half court, I don't want to create turnovers and pressure the passing lanes. We did that a lot in the first year, it was nice having Brendan [Haywood] back there if we got beat. But I thought we did pick people up and it helped having Ronald Curry, as he was as good a on-the-ball defender as I've coached. And then you had Joe Forte on the wing and guys who could get to passing lanes. We should be able to do that even more so because I think we'll be quicker this year one through four. However, we don't have a shot blocker like we did with Brendan behind us. But I think we should be able to push up and get in passing lanes and we have some depth to put guys in when other guys get tired.

How is Jawad's toughness? Is he more equipped to deal with contact now?

I think he is more equipped than he was last year, however I'd still like to see that improve. I think he's a mentally tough kid, but physically he's still 205 pounds. The stronger he gets the more toughness you'll witness, however I think inwardly his toughness will be the same. He's a tough kid, but I think he's still trying to protect his body sometimes. In going up last night, he tried to make some tough moves, but didn't finish because he's not strong enough yet. Jawad's built like a wing player, but he's going to have to play in and around the basket sometimes, more so on the defensive end. That's where I have some concerns, defensively we go up against two big forwards we're going to have our hands full. We've got to do a better job of keeping the ball from going into the post, because once it gets there we can get in trouble. Even with Sean, Sean's a big kid but he's not a shotblocker. Duke's played that way for a couple of years and they've had success, so I don't see why we can't have success, too, but that is certainly an area of concern for me

Last year you talked about wanting to go into more of a free-form offense. What about this year?

I got away from secondary break last year towards the end of January. This year we are running our secondary break, but we're pushing it up a little quicker, so our secondary break can get set quicker. Last year we were a little slow getting the ball up the court so teams can get in position to guard it. They were more set. This year we'll get the ball up quicker, so defenses won't be set and we'll be able to take advantage of it. And I think our kids are pretty savvy kids and they retain things very well. I think we have a pretty smart team.

Do you see Melvin playing mostly off the ball this year?

I think Melvin is a combo-guard. He'll play the two and Raymond and Jon will share the point guard spot. If we need it, Melvin will be the third point guard.

And he's looked more comfortable at the two?

Yeah, I think so. Especially when you've got a guy like Raymond … he can find people. He pushes it and defenses aren't set or he draws two defenders and kicks it. So Melvin and a lot of people will benefit from Raymond being able to push it, penetrate and kick it.

Last night the whole team got to play, but how do you deal with when the season starts and you can only send out five at a time?

You bring that up beforehand. You address that and I've had some individual meetings with these guys. I ask them questions like ‘If you're not the leading scorer will you still be happy?' or ‘If you were to come off the bench for the team to win would you be happy?' And then you ask questions like ‘How are you going to feel if the reporters are flocking around someone and not you after a game?' We can't lose this sense of harmony because reporters flocked around Player A. Or you have a coach or buddy getting in your ear telling you that you should get more shots. So, what is our main goal here? That's to win. We talk amongst our staff a lot about the science of coaching versus the art of coaching. The science is the X's and O's, while the art of coaching is something just like that. You get a team that players together and plays hard, that's more important than the X's and O's. I'm confident that we have that. And that's why you recruit kids with good character, so that when these situations arise, they can reason what you're talking about and they may be disappointed, but that they handle it in a proper way and it doesn't affect the time.

And that's what didn't happen last year? What were the issues with last year's transfers?

Playing time was certainly an issue. Brian [Morrison] wanted to play more, and he and I talked about it openly. Where I saw his role in the coming years. Adam [Boone]? I think you'll have to talk to Adam. But there was a lot of talk about Raymond coming in, and that could have been part of it, but I don't know. But that was last year and I'm excited about this year. If you did see us last year, I think there's some reason to be excited. We have some things to work with.

Do you envision having any problems with egos this year?

I don't sense a lot of ego stuff with this team. I asked Raymond, ‘What are your goals individually?' He said, ‘Coach' then paused for a second – ‘I just want to win. I don't care if I get any honors, I just want to win. If we win, then all that other stuff takes care of itself.' And that's something I preach and is what Coach [Dean] Smith preached to us – and it's true. Everyone in this room can name the starting five on the national championship last year, but you probably couldn't name the leading scorer in the country. Those are messages that I have to send through to the team and it is a team. It's a team thing. Our players who have played team basketball and won championships can still be successful in the NBA. Walter Davis, [Michael] Jordan, [Rick] Fox, [Walter] Davis, George Lynch …

How would you gauge fan support last year?

Outside observers saw losses to Hampton and Davidson and wondered ‘what's wrong?' But I think people in this area are very educated in the game of basketball and saw that we could struggle last year. But people on a national level just see the name. It was a tough year, but the people that matter most understood and were supportive.

Did the season shake you?

There were certainly times when I felt like I was going to get physically ill, but – and I've said this along along – I knew when I took the job that that could have been a tough year. Brendan was going to go, I knew there was a chance that Joe would go pro, and then all the things that could go wrong went wrong. Jason Parker, when I got the job, I thought I was going to coach him. And then two of my best players, Ronald Curry and Julius Peppers, they didn't play. The dynamics of the team were totally different. It was a good year to put things in perspective. I've got a five-year old and a three-year old and you go home, and they don't even know I coach basketball. I thought I dealt with it fairly well and I tried to be as positive as I could with the guys. All I asked was for them to do their best, and if they're doing their best, that's all I can ask. Coach Smith always said ‘do your best and the wins and losses will take care of themselves.' We didn't win, and that's disappointing and is the bottom line in the end.

Looking back at last year, is there anything you'd do differently?

I'm sure there are a lot of things I'd do differently, but I don't think about it a whole lot – not now. I thought about it a lot in the spring and summer months when I'm in the car, but there are a lot of things I'd certainly do differently.

Are you too intense?

When you're winning, it's a good thing. When you're losing, it's a bad thing. You can spin it however you want. When I got the job and we won 18 games in a row, people said ‘boy his intensity is really contagious, look how hard they're playing' and all of a sudden intensity isn't a good thing. There are a couple coaches in this room who are pretty intense and they just won two NCAA championships back to back.

Can freshmen be leaders?

Yeah, I think so. I think freshmen can be leaders. Fortunately I think we have two real good leaders in Will and Jon. I think that Jackie, Jawad and Melvin have done a good job leading. But it's who the players look to, respect and I think with our team we have a good group to choose from.

If Raymond has the ball in his hands, is he someone that the team can look to for leadership?

I think so. Especially as he gets more comfortable with what we're trying to accomplish because that way he's confident and knows where players are supposed to be. We certainly look to our seniors for leadership. On the court in current situations, those seniors may or may not be on the court, so somebody is going to have to lead. And I only have sophomores and freshmen after that. When I ask an opinion on where the team's going to eat or what time? I look to a freshman, not a senior. The freshmen can have input through the seniors. But when a situation arises on the court, and we only have freshmen and sophomores out there, I don't want a freshman to be afraid to speak up. I've told Raymond that. I've told Rashad that. I've told Sean that. If you see a situation where you've got to grab somebody and tell them ‘We've got to stop these guys,' then you've got to do that. I can't be in every huddle on the court.

Phil Ford talked earlier that despite the expectations, sometimes you need to let freshmen be freshmen. How can you help them with that?

I try to deflect attention to them. I try to soften their arrival a little bit. Phil Ford, as great as he was, struggled early. He talks about how an article after his first two college games had a headline that read ‘This Ford is an Edsel.' So, everyone thought Felipe Lopez was going to save the world [at St. John's], but Felipe didn't go to one NCAA Tournament. You've got to be fair and reasonable, and that's a lot to ask of fans and media sometimes because fans want to get excited about things. Felipe Lopez was a pretty talented player. Chris Burgess was a pretty talented recruit. And then there were guys who no one knew of … I always use the example that I was a McDonald's All-American in 1980 and Clyde Drexler and John Stockton were not. I turned out to be a coach and they turned out to be two of the Top 50 players in NBA history. So, you never know.

Last night the three-point shooting percentage was very high. Has that been a point of emphasis?

We worked a lot on shooting. We're getting more open shots because we're pushing the ball up and with Raymond's penetration guys are getting better looks at the basket. We do work on it, but you also have to recruit good shooters, too. And Melvin's a good shooter – now he's off the ball. Last year he was bringing it up, but now all he has to worry about is getting up the court, setting a screen and spotting up. Will, the same thing … Jon has done a good job of finding people and is shooting the ball well … Jackie has worked on it … Jawad is a good shooter and he's really improved … David Noel, when recruiting him, I thought he could really pass and handle, but was an average shooter – but by concentrating on basketball could become a very good shooter. And I think he is becoming a very good shooter. … Sean May's a very good shooter. So I think we do have guys who can put the ball in the basket and it helps when you have a guy that can push it up and create more open looks than we had last year.

Will Sean May be taking three-point shots?

Oh, yeah, no question. One day I watched him in the shooting drill hit nine out of ten from the three-point line. If he's healthy, Sean will be my starting post player, and he's a very good post-up player, but one of my best post-up players is Rashad McCants. Sean is one of my best passers and outside shooters, so you've got a big guy guarding Sean, and Rashad can post players up … so bring out Sean and post Rashad up.

You talk of patience, so has this team enabled you to be patient or are they starting to test your patience?

No, they haven't. We've had 19 practices and I'd say one practice wasn't as intense as I would have liked it. But it's still a good practice. These kids have talent, are unselfish, they like each other and they listen. I stress the listening part because we talk a lot about how I want kids who can run and jump, but we don't talk about the listening part as much. These kids are coachable kids. When you are talking, you feel that they are absorbing what you are saying, and that's all you can ask as a coach.

Do you find yourself doing anything different this year in practice?

I'm trying to be more patient and go slower. I haven't even put in our out of bounds plays yet. Not giving them as much as I have in the past. Trying to give confidence. Confidence is a funny thing – I think the greatest thing as a coach that you can give to a player is confidence. But, you can only give them half the package. They've got to come up with the other half. They've got to feel confident and have to do it. With this group, I feel like I've been patient, and as Coach Smith says ‘Applaud the acts you want repeated' and be more forgiving when they make mistakes.

Is there any feeling among the freshmen that they need to be saviors?

I've talked to Raymond especially about it. It's a team game. Phil has shared a lot of his experiences with me. Raymond is not here to save the program. He's a big part of it – he's a very talented player, but it's not all on his shoulders. I'm sure he feels it to some degree, but I don't think he thinks about. He just loves playing basketball and he gets so lost in the game that he's not going onto the floor thinking he's got pressure on his shoulders.

Will said last night, that in the four years that he's been here, this has been the best three weeks of practice. Would you agree with that?

He's been here a year longer than I have, so he's probably a better judge of that. As a coach, you have your perspective and it might not always be like the players. So I value his perspective more than mine. From my perspective, yes, I'm more comfortable. I recruited most of these kids. That first year was tough. They went to the Final Four, there are some experienced players coming back, but now they've got to listen to me? So that was a tough transition when I got the job in July, rather than in April when you can form some relationships with the kids. So we didn't have that foundation, but that foundation is there now with this group. Recruiting them, spent a lot of time with them and I think there's a trust there, a respect there, and the kids are having fun. There is no one with an air about them, no hard heads, no cockiness. A lot of good attitudes.

Can you speak to the recent use of the word ‘swagger' to describe your players?

Swagger is confidence. I know it has been mentioned by someone who didn't like that we had a cockiness and a swagger, but our ‘Thought of the Day' the next day in practice was ‘Keep the Swagger' because I want our players to have a swagger. You better have a swagger going into Cameron Indoor. You better have a swagger going to play at Maryland. Because if you don't, you're going to get your butt kicked. So our players do have a swagger, even the freshmen, and that's a good thing. I want our players to play with a strong confidence bordering on cockiness, however, I don't want them to exhibit that outwardly by showing up an opponent or bringing attention to themselves after a good play by pounding their chest or pointing into the stands I don't like that and that's not Carolina Basketball. But when they walk on that floor, I expect them to look that other player in the eye and say to themselves ‘I'm going to kick your tail.'

Is it difficult to have that confidence and swagger after last season?

I don't think so because you have so many new guys. As confident as they are, there is still going to be some uncertainty. Especially when you're out on the road or you're playing a good opponent. So there are times when that confidence and swagger is challenged, but even great, experienced teams have had that confidence broken temporarily.

With all the talk of the ACC's 50 greatest players, who is the best head coach or who are the best head coaches?

Dean Smith.

And why is that?

Just consistent winning and graduation of players. Have you ever heard any player say anything bad about Dean Smith. He treats them all with great respect and great care. It's unbelievable how much he cares about his players – you don't know. I didn't even know as a player until you come back. Tommy LaGarde is in town this week to see Coach Smith and you see Joe Wolf fly in … it's remarkable what he does for people and the time it takes to do that. No one's won like Coach Smith. No one has graduated players over a 30-year period like Coach Smith and no one has cared for his players like Coach Smith. He's the best.

In terms of old arenas, did you think you all had the best home court advantage?

I don't know if we had the best. The best home court advantage was Dean Smith, Michael Jordan, James Worthy, Sam Perkins, Kenny Smith … players make home court advantages. Our arena is a pretty good arena. We didn't have a great home court advantage last year because we weren't as good. Although some arenas are set up that if you have a big team in town, to be louder than others. And Carmichael was as loud as … there were times when … I remember Jordan stealing the ball and dunking against Virginia in 1984 and I couldn't hear myself think.

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