While some college basketball coaches were spending this pre-Christmas holiday basketball season trying to recruit players in future classes, Roy Williams was spending time with guys who he already considers a part of the team.
"This is an easy one for me," said Williams, "because why would you not want to go see part of your family play? I remember 100 years ago I was at a game with Lefty Driesell. Lefty said, 'Roy, which guy are you recruiting?'
"'I said,' We've signed that kid.'
"He said, 'Why would you go see him? You've already got him. I'd go see somebody else.'
"I said, 'Coach, I'd rather go see somebody in my family play as opposed to anybody else,' and that's the way we feel about it."
"Coach said it's just him watching me," said 6-4 wing guard Leslie McDonald. "He already knows what I can do. For me, it's just a comfortable move. He's my coach now. He's my coach in the summer so I feel comfortable with him…
"Coach is a loveable coach; he's a loveable guy. He's a type of home guy. He's don there with his wife. He's watching us so-- They took us into their house when we came on the visit. That tells me he has good character and is like a father figure."
"I didn't see too many head coaches," said 6-10 forward John Henson. "For him to come down here, that's a special thing to let us know how he feels about us and that he wants us to do great things."
"I love all of them," said Williams. "How they play in one game is not going to change my opinion of them. I've seen some of these kids play 20-30 times over two to three years. I thought they all played well. I only saw Leslie play one game and they won, and I thought that he played well. I saw David and Travis win the championship. I saw Dexter's first two games of the year. I'm going to watch John. It's a great thing for me. They are very good players, but the best part is they are even better kids than they are players."
On The Same Page
Coach Williams sells it, and his recruits are buying it. To a man, the five recruits said that they would be willing to give up individual accomplishments to attain team goals with the ultimate goal of a national championship.
"People use the word 'system,' but I like 'philosophy,'" said Williams of the way he coaches his teams. "I like a deal where the ball is evenly distributed and five guys average in double figures, but in '93 we took a team to the Final Four with Rex Walters and Adonis Jordan doing about all our scoring, so it depends on what you have at that time. I do think all these kids want to win and that's the biggest philosophy I have: Do you want to be on a TEAM that has a chance every year to be a team talked about that has a chance to win the national championship?"
"I think I have changed the one-on-one mentality I used to have…" said 6-2 combo guard Dexter Strickland of the biggest change in his game over the last year. "I started to realize that I can't do it all by myself. I have to play as [part] of a team. That causes more wins…playing as a team and playing together. I think it has made me a better player…
"Playing as a team [at UNC] will cause more wins. Individual [play] will have some wins but more losses. Obviously, we don't want the losses. Playing as a team and fitting in with the program is the best choice for me."
The 6-10 Wear twins, David and Travis, enjoyed the COP championship win despite taking a backseat offensively, scoring just 13 points combined in the championship game.
"We are very excited," said David Wear. "It was our goal to win the tournament. We knew it was going to be hard to do because it is such a tough tournament with so many great teams. We came out here, played our game as a team, just played hard, and ended up being able to pull it off."
Coach Williams had a chance to visit with each signee individually during his stay, mostly immediately after the conclusion of their games. Some of the players already have had a chance to meet each other, and this was a chance for those that hadn't to be able to do so and for those that had to be able to build on that relationship.
"I don't know if all of us will be able to get together at once, but I might [visit] one at a time," said McDonald. "I met Dexter yesterday at the beach and we just chilled. Travis and David, we chilled yesterday at the game. I'm not sure we'll all bond as one group [at this tournament], but we will see each other."
"I talked with David and Travis," said Henson, "Dexter is in the same hotel, and I've seen Leslie around. I talked to all of the guys."
When four of the five signees were going to be in the tournament, Coach Williams suggested that Henson's new high school be included in one of the "challenge rounds" that are a part of the tournament every year.
Accolades All Around
When Mater Dei downed St. Patrick's in the championship game, Dexter Strickland was the first one to offer praise despite his disappointment in the losing effort.
"Mater Dei did a good job on us," said Strickland. "They played really good defense. As a team we should have played better on defense and gotten more rebounds. They just played a better game... They are a great team and they deserved to win… They were just a better team tonight."
Strickland received some accolades of his own.
"Now that I've met Dexter, we are going to be a good team," said McDonald. "I see his skills, David and Travis, and then I've seen John's skills before, and I think 'Wow! We are going to have a big team. We are going to come back for North Carolina and hopefully win another [national championship] after they win this one this year."
"It's exciting to know the kid we are trying to shut down I'm going to be playing with next year," said Travis Wear of his future teammate and his team's defensive attention to him in the championship game. "He's going to get attention next year, and in the future when we play at North Carolina it will free me up and vice versa… It's exciting to know the other team's best player is going to be my teammate next year."
Apparently, Strickland is setting himself apart in other ways as well.
"I'm going to have to say Dexter," said Henson as to who is the clown of this recruiting class. "He's the guy that is the life of the party. That's the guy like that."
All five players have displayed a broad range of skills, allowing them to play more than one position.
Strickland's home is at two guard, but he expects to offer abilities that will allow him to play another position in college.
"We talked about it - combo guard, point guard," said Strickland of his conversation with Coach Williams regarding his role at UNC. "I don't think I'm going to grow anymore At the next level I'll play the one but mostly at the two. I'm just not exactly sure how much."
In order to do so, his focus on improvement for transitioning to college is "conditioning, a sense of where the ball is—off-ball defense - dribbling, shooting off the dribble… Just keeping that work ethic; never be satisfied."
Leslie McDonald has the shooting ability - albeit streaky at times - and the driving ability to play at either wing position. With a low center of gravity, he should be able to match up with either position defensively as well. He started out on Lance Stephenson, one of the nation's top ranked wings and forced him into a 1-for-6 start from the field before a defensive switch led to an offensive outburst by the Lincoln star that no one seemed able to stop.
Forward David Wear, the more post-centric of the twins, has displayed an ability to go to either hand in the post, relying heavily on a left-handed hook in several of the games.
"I think it has to do with me being so comfortable with it now," said David Wear. "They know I'm right-handed so they don't expect that shot. It's just easy buckets. They aren't going to contest it if they don't expect it. I'm comfortable shooting that shot so I'll shoot it all day."
He also showed a new wrinkle to his game - the willingness to get physical in the post. In a hotly contested game down the stretch, the opposition tried to push David out of good position in the post, but he held his ground and even pushed back to the extent that the referees would allow it and scored some important points in a game that went down to the wire.
"In a game like that when the refs aren't really calling much, you have to get physical," said brother Travis. "You have to assert yourself and you have to see just how much the refs are going to let you get away with. If you initiate it you will be able to get the contact with the fouls rather than the other way."
Travis, who is the more perimeter-oriented of the two, is working to develop his game as well, sharing that new wrinkle with his brother.
"I've been working a lot on my ball-handling skills, my outside game, as well as my inside toughness," said Travis Wear.
John Henson, 6-10 forward may be the most versatile of them all. The only thing he hasn't done consistently is hit the outside jumper, but everything else is on display. Again he showed the ability to finish with either hand, rebound, push the ball in transition, drive with either hand in the half court, find open teammates, and most obviously block shots.
"I try to do a lot of things on the court," said Henson, "whatever my team needs, if that is taking it to the hole, taking it in close, shooting the three, shooting a jump shot—whatever my team needs is how I play…
"It takes timing [to block a shot] when the guy puts it up," said Henson. "You have to be careful about your body. When they go into your body they try to go at you and get a foul. I feel my blocking ability is one of the things I really like - going out there and getting that ball."
Life Lesson: Dexter Strickland was forced to sit out St. Patrick's opening round game and required to come off the bench in the second round game for disciplinary reasons due to an undisclosed violation of school rules.
"I understand he is teaching me a life lesson," said Strickland of his coach's decision. "Nothing comes easy in life. I appreciate the punishment that he gave me. I have to learn from my mistakes."
Most repeated phrase of the weekend: With five signees participating in either the tournament or challenge rounds and three in the championship game, "He's going to North Carolina" may have been the most overheard phrase among the spectators in the stands and wandering through the hallway and outside the building. Florida is football country, but North Carolina was well-known at this event by all in attendance - and even among people at the Fort Myers Airport.