In a different culture, the irregularly-shaped green flakes falling from the Smith Center ceiling could have been taken as a sign, an omen. Sages might have read the plastic pieces where they lay, like tea leaves, divining meaning in the bizarre dispersal at the outset of the Tar Heels’ home contest against Davidson.
Instead, the game was stopped to quickly remove the shattered pieces of absorbent padding that settled from a catwalk high above the playing surface and landed near the North Carolina bench. Then play resumed, and the Dean Dome dandruff was quickly forgotten.
Yet there was plenty of fallout from the game itself, at least as far as Roy Williams was concerned.
After watching sloppy passing, spotty play by his senior big men, 37.7 percent shooting from the floor, and a 10-point lead melt to three in the final minutes in the face of a spirited Wildcats rally, Williams observed flatly that “we sucked.” Then, ostensibly regretting his remark, he immediately added, “My wife’s going to be mad at me.”
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The coach has previously acknowledged that Wanda Williams chastised him for word choices that his young grandsons shouldn’t hear. A time or two Williams admitted he was embarrassed by his remarks as well. But that doesn’t deter him from commenting frankly, broadcast live on the school’s radio network, while emotions run high in the immediate aftermath of competition.
Publicly walking a verbal edge is part of Williams’ motivational repertoire, whether leveling criticism at individual players, his squad or the often somnolent Smith Center crowd. His players surely recognize the ploy, even if it stings.
This season, senior Kennedy Meeks, a gifted post player who isn’t consistently assertive on the court, has been a target of Williams’ barbs. Earlier in the decade forward John Henson was teased for his immaturity, real or exaggerated. Over the past several seasons the coach focused on Brice Johnson, whom Williams relentlessly prodded to reach the level of excellence he finally delivered in 2016, when he became an All-American.
“It’s all right,” Johnson said last February of his coach’s hectoring. “I love him sometimes. I still hate him sometimes.” An old coaching axiom – illustrated to an extreme degree by former Indiana coach Bob Knight – has it that, if you can’t get the most out of your players any other way, kindle a fire by making them hate you. They’ll ache to prove you wrong.
The Dean Smith way, in which Williams was inculcated, is to secure preferred behavior by expressing disappointment when standards are not upheld. That is generally Williams’ tack.
Certainly that was the case after the Davidson game, when his team beat a solid opponent despite missing injured Theo Pinson, a masterful coaching impersonator on the bench, and floor leader Joel Berry, the squad’s top returning scorer and passer. “It’s fun watching this basketball team at certain times this year, but not fun tonight,” the coach said. “I was as frustrated as I can ever remember, to be honest with you.”
A few days later, after the Heels came back from a 15-point deficit in the first half to top Tennessee 73-71, he made another global statement, saying the outcome was “the luckiest I’ve ever been in a thousand and three games” as a coach. “We stunk it up, and we made a couple of plays at the end,” Williams said. Toggling the disappointment switch, he added, “I’ve got to do a better job coaching because I feel like I’m talking to a brick wall.”
Meeks got a key rebound of a missed Vol 3-pointer with nine seconds left, then negated the advantage by shooting quickly and coming up empty. That earned him special notice from his coach for “the dumbest play you’ve made in your entire life.”
Presumably Tar Heels fans, as well as players, have caught on to Williams’ attempts to goad them into better performances.
Replicating the noise level in other arenas, including the team’s old home at Carmichael Auditorium, is no simple matter for the Carolina faithful. The Smith Center’s cavernous size – largest in the ACC at 21,750 spectators until the inclusion of Syracuse in 2014 – financed by the long-term sale of courtside seats to well-heeled boosters, shapes the building’s atmosphere as much as anything that occurs on the court.
Avarice has its costs. Students sit far from the action, other than a batch stationed at courtside under one basket, farthest from the visitor’s bench where they might prove disruptive. Usually what rouses the crowd are T-shirt tosses, UNC rallies, 3-pointers and dunks. Lifting the team, rather than the reverse, is infrequently on the agenda. The oft-misquoted sobriquet “cheese and wine” crowd, first applied by Florida State guard Sam Cassell following his school’s stunning inaugural ACC victory 25 years ago this month, still applies.
If Smith Center habitués seem a bit tepid in their support, it’s in part because they, like denizens of Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium, are conditioned to expect victory. Particularly at home. After all, since 1984 each program has experienced a single losing season overall. The Tar Heels average barely two defeats per year at the Smith Center since it opened in January 1986, one every other season against nonconference opponents. Last year they were 15-1 at Chapel Hill.
The contrast with more vociferous rooters elsewhere irked Williams after losing at Indiana’s Assembly Hall as November ended. IU, a traditional power, used to expect victory just like UNC. Recent struggles helped fans savor the current team’s elevated performance. “It was a wonderful crowd,” said Williams. “Gosh, I’d like to play in front of a crowd like that in the Smith Center every night other than the fricking Duke game.”
This season Williams has yet to get his wish. Against Davidson and Tennessee the holiday-season crowds were modestly engaged until the outcomes hung in the balance. Williams nevertheless issued a laudatory post-Tennessee press release. “I’ve been complaining about our crowds, but today the Smith Center crowd was one hundred times better than the head coach,” he said in disservice to himself, “and I appreciate that.”
The level of excitement is sure to rise as Williams coaches everybody up, and ACC action lends more meaning to each contest. The return of Berry, and probably Pinson, adds a pair of strong passers, defenders and leaders. Fellow junior Justin Jackson is shooting with confidence, pacing the squad in 3-point attempts. He hit 7 threes against Davidson – the same number current assistant coach Hubert Davis made in that December ’91 loss to FSU.
The physically imposing frontcourt of rebound-leader Meeks, foul-prone Isaiah Hicks, and freshman Tony Bradley can be among the best in the game. Bradley, a 6-foot-10 Floridian, is remarkably adept and may be the most unacknowledged, legitimate candidate for early departure among this year’s ACC newcomers. Underclass perimeter players and several career reserves also have contributed, lending squad-wide depth that allows Williams to push the tempo to discomfit opponents.
UNC’s prowess and promise suggests a hopeful message can be gleaned from the odd Dean Dome downfall earlier this month. The last time the Tar Heels endured a similar shower was on the court at Houston as they watched Villanova celebrate the winning shot in the national championship game. Maybe this time the signs say the confetti will be for them.