Roy Williams looked no different, sounded no different on Saturday at the United Center. But to see him in person, in practices for the past week – well, it was a different experience entirely for his players at North Carolina.
Junior forward J.P. Tokoto said he’d never seen Williams the way he was last week. C.B. McGrath, the Tar Heels’ assistant coach who played for Williams at Kansas, told Williams the way he was acting – coaching while trying to impose a sense of fear – reminded McGrath of the Williams of old.
If the Tar Heels indeed find their toughness this season, if they play with the kind of will and grit and effort that Williams demands, they’ll likely look back to the past week – to the days before their 82-74 victory against Ohio State on Saturday – as the time they found those characteristics.
It was a time for difficult, long practices and for running. Lots and lots of running. More running than normal? Sophomore forward Kennedy Meeks sat in front of his locker at the United Center and smiled at the question – laughed at it, almost.
“It was past more running than normal,” said Meeks, who finished with eight points and 13 rebounds against Ohio State. “It was, like, unlimited running. After every drill, after every turnover.”
After the victory, UNC players described a week of practice unlike any they’d ever experienced. Sure, Williams is never not demanding, they said. And yes, there had been difficult practices before – plenty of them.
But not like this. Not with Williams as focused and fierce as he was throughout the week. Williams had said on Thursday that the time for being nice was over – that “being a nice guy isn’t working.” So he tried something different.
What did it look like, this version of Williams that his current players had never seen before? How did mean ol’ Roy compare to regular ol’ Roy – the country, aw-shucks persona Williams has built for himself over the years?
“Those are two different people, man,” said Marcus Paige, the junior guard who finished with 16 points on Saturday. “He can snap like that. But if we give him a reason to then that’s kind of our fault.
“So at the end of the day, he’s just going to push us to play hard, and if that’s the method he has to use than so be it.”
Williams transformed himself after the Tar Heels’ victory against UNC Greensboro last Tuesday night. UNC won that game comfortably by 23 points, and the Spartans never challenged after the Tar Heels built a commanding early lead.
Even so, Williams found his team’s performance lacking. Some of the attention to detail was missing; some of the execution. At times, the Tar Heels didn’t hustle enough. Williams showed his players two times when they failed to sprint back on defense and Greensboro scored on layups.
That, junior forward Brice Johnson said, “infuriated” Williams. The notion that his team has played soft at times early this season can’t be too pleasing, either. Williams criticized his team’s toughness after an ugly defeat against Butler in the Bahamas, and then again after a loss against Iowa in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
After the Butler loss, some UNC players went back to their hotel rooms to hear TV personalities questioning their heart and effort. People started to call North Carolina soft. That label has stuck with the Tar Heels since. They’ve heard about it often.
Tokoto, the junior forward who finished with eight points, eight rebounds and six assists on Saturday, put it like this:
“You know, if you ask someone outside of our team, outside of our fans – our fan club, whatever you want to call it – what’s the M.O. of UNC? And it’s they’re not tough. They don’t play hard. Whatever else you want to say.
“So we’re really just trying to go out here and show everybody that we’re not just some soft guys. We’re not just some punks out here playing basketball. We’re going to give you a dog fight.”
That was what the past week was about for Tar Heels, then: becoming tougher. Smarter, too.
At times UNC ran in practices just because that’s what was on Williams’ agenda. Other times, players ran to atone for mistakes they’d made. One turnover during some 5-on-5 work, for instance, resulted in a warning. Another turnover, and it was time to sprint.
“The person who turns over the ball runs a 55, which is five up and downs in 55 seconds,” Tokoto said. “And the rest of the team runs a 33, which is three up and downs. And you know, it’s not that much fun once you get started.”
Tokoto, a Wisconsin native, was headed back home for Christmas break after the victory. Many of his teammates were, too. Some of them spoke of the family they had waiting for them outside of the locker room and down the hall.
They were looking forward to a welcome break, and looking forward to it after a memorable week – one unlike any they’d endured under Williams, who reverted back to some old ways in hopes that it helps the Tar Heels break some bad habits.
“We hadn’t been busting our rear ends on every play, every possession,” Paige said. “And that’s on us. So coaching by fear kind of helps you get to that level. If he’s going to help to run us an entire practice, I think our incentive to play harder is going to be higher. …
“He’s too good of a coach to have to keep telling us the same things over and over again.”