Roy Williams learned to appreciate the journey long ago, back in 1990 during his second season at Kansas. The first one ended, after all, with no trip to the NCAA tournament amid a postseason ban – punishment for misdeeds before Williams arrived.
“I’ve always appreciated every single day in the NCAA tournament,” Williams, the North Carolina coach, said Saturday. “To each level you go, the stakes get a little higher, you get a little more excitement, a little more intensity level in your practices, a little more attention from the players.”
This is the 12th time Williams has led a team at least this far in the NCAA tournament. Five of his teams at Kansas reached a regional final. Entering this season, six of his teams at UNC had, too – all in Williams’ first nine years as the Tar Heels’ head coach.
And now they’re back again, one game away from the Final Four. UNC, the top seed in the East Region, would make it there, to Houston, with a victory here on Sunday against sixth-seeded Notre Dame.
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There can be no doubt about the significance of a UNC victory on Sunday and what it would represent for the Tar Heels – for Williams, especially.
“He’s been through a whole lot,” Theo Pinson, the sophomore forward, said on Saturday. “With coach (Dean) Smith passing away and all types of stuff. And it’s really big for everybody.”
There is a sense of familiarity about this – seeing the Tar Heels in a regional final. Williams has been here plenty of times before, even if none of his players, except for one, have. And this is the 26th time that UNC has appeared in a regional final.
And yet there’s something different about this one, too. Williams knows it. His players know it. They all have a different perspective of the story arc of this season, and the past several seasons – ones that have been filled with controversy off the court and, often, more disappointment than usual on it.
“A lot has happened with this program the last couple of years,” said Stilman White, the junior guard. “A lot of negative stuff thrown on us. I think that just the fun, kind of loving atmosphere that everyone on this team brings has probably meant a lot to (Williams).”
The last time UNC reached a regional final, back in 2012, White started at point guard. That was in a game against Kansas, and White, who played sparingly his freshman season, was forced to start because UNC had no other options.
Kendall Marshall, who rewrote the school records for assists, had broken his wrist earlier in that NCAA tournament. Dexter Strickland, the team’s starting shooting guard but also Marshall’s backup, had been lost midway through the season with a torn ACL.
That left White, who left school for a two-year Mormon mission but returned before last season, starting alongside four future first-round NBA draft picks. That, as White said, “was a long time ago.”
“A lot has happened in my life since then,” he said Saturday with a smile.
A lot has happened at UNC since then, too, and much of it has likely aged Williams. On the court, his teams for two consecutive seasons didn’t make it past the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. Off of it, he found himself embroiled in one controversy after the next.
Williams has often referred to some of those things as “the junk” or “the stuff,” and it hasn’t gone away. He continues to recruit amid the uncertainty of an NCAA investigation that has stalled, leaving everyone, Williams included, waiting for answers.
The NCAA charged neither Williams nor any member of his staff with wrongdoing related to the investigation, but still, questions have persisted about what Williams knew about a long-running scheme of bogus African Studies courses, or what he should have known. His integrity has been questioned.
“Attacks have not been, ‘Oh, that Roy can’t coach a lick,’” Williams said Saturday. “The attacks have been in other areas – (that) kind of thing”
For nearly 10 years, Williams made it look easy. Or about as easy as any coach has made it look.
His UNC teams reached NCAA tournament regional championship games, like this one has, in 2005, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2011 and 2012.
UNC advanced to the Final Four in 2005, 2008 and 2009 and won the ’05 and 09 national titles. Yet beginning with that ill-fated tournament run in 2012, when Williams believed his team was the best in the country, few things have gone according to plan.
Memories of what happened in 2012 have stuck with Williams. They’ve haunted him enough that he often references that season. The injuries to Marshall and Henson, the forward who was not fully healthy in the NCAA tournament. The lost opportunity.
“If Kendall Marshall and John Henson don’t get hurt at the end of the season, I think we had the best team,” Williams said. “I’ve told Cal that – I’d like to have played them on Monday night.”
Williams was talking about John Calipari, the Kentucky coach. It was Calipari and Kentucky that celebrated the national championship at the end of that season, while Williams and his players were left to wonder what if.
For three years, the 2012 tournament represented two things for UNC: heartbreak, for one. And second, it had represented the Tar Heels’ most recent best chance to reach the Final Four.
Until now, with the team that Williams had been long hoping to come together. Even before the Tar Heels’ recent ascent – they’ve been at their best during the past three weeks – Williams ranked this team among his favorites because of what it has provided him.
“I’m never going to get over this junk,” Williams said on Saturday. “But it’s been my salvation at times, that I’ve been able to go out on the basketball court. And moments like in the locker room last night, I can assure you I didn’t think about any of that other stuff in the locker room last night.”
That other stuff is there, though. The NCAA investigation that won’t end. The questions that have come with it.
The pressure, too, of ending UNC’s longest Final Four drought – if it can be called such a thing – in two decades. Six seasons have passed since the Tar Heels last reached a Final Four – their longest such stretch since they went eight seasons, from 1983 through 1990, without an appearance.
“There’d be a lot of different schools in the country that wish they could have some of the success that coach has had,” said Sean May, who was the Most Outstanding Player of the 2005 Final Four before joining Williams’ staff this season. “So they can call it a drought, and we’ll just call it another chance.”
May, one of the centerpieces of Williams’ first national championship team, has been around long enough to understand how Williams relates to certain teams. That relationship is always a bit different, and Williams’ bond with this particular group has been stronger than most.
“With everything that’s gone on with the school, it’s been a safe haven for him,” May said.
Sunday is UNC’s best chance – its only chance, it has turned out – to reach a Final Four since 2012. Williams thought his team’s circumstances were difficult then, what with that team’s bad luck with injuries. What happened at the end of that season, though, was just the beginning of a long road back to this point.