Roy Williams wanted it to be a surprise, so he waited until some visitors had left and then he led his players back onto the court Friday and taught them a brief history lesson on a fabled part of North Carolina’s basketball history: the Four Corners offense.
“It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a long time, for two weeks, anyway,” Williams said Saturday after the Tar Heels’ 89-60 victory against Georgia Tech at the Smith Center. “Some way to do something that would mean a great deal to him, would mean a great deal to me.”
He was talking about honoring Dean Smith, who died on Feb. 7 at 83. UNC hadn’t played a home game since then, and Williams wanted to do something to honor Smith’s memory. He decided that his team would run the Four Corners – the offense Smith made famous – at the start of the game on Saturday.
None of Williams’ players have memories of Smith coaching. They were too young to watch his UNC teams, and were decades from being born when Smith’s teams ran the Four Corners to perfection in the mid-to-late 1970s, and into the 80s.
“I didn’t know anything about it,” J.P. Tokoto, the junior forward, said.
And so Williams provided the background Friday. He told some stories about the offense, how Smith popularized it, how it worked, what it did. In a different era of college basketball, before the 35-second shot clock, and before the 45-second clock, the Four Corners frustrated defenses and helped build Smith’s coaching legend.
The Tar Heels (19-8, 9-5 ACC) went into the Four Corners on their first possession Saturday. The possession ended quickly, with a Brice Johnson backdoor layup. Marcus Paige, who had the assist on the play after starting it by holding up four fingers, pumped his fist and smiled widely at the moment. He’d been nervous.
“Very nervous,” he said. “That was one of the most nerve-wracking moments of my life. Just because I feel like if I would have turned it over, if I would have messed it up or something that I was letting down the way that we were going to pay homage to coach Smith.
“So I’m just glad Brice caught it and laid it up. He made me look good.”
The Tar Heels, who had lost four of their past five games entering Saturday, had little trouble looking good. The successful execution of the Four Corners was a precursor, and they led the Yellow Jackets 43-29 at halftime and by as many as 38 points with seven minutes to play.
There was no hangover, it seemed, from the 92-90 overtime loss at Duke on Wednesday.
Offensively, UNC hadn’t played better this season than on Saturday. It made 63.3 percent of its shots – a season high – and six players scored in double figures, led by Kennedy Meeks, who had 18 points. Paige, the junior guard, finished with 13 points, 10 assists and no turnovers. It was his first double-double.
The Tar Heels played with the kind of balance and execution that likely would have made Smith proud. Williams hoped the Four Corners tribute would have, too. He recalled a time when he was coaching Kansas and Smith called him, asking him why he wasn’t running the offense Smith made famous.
“When I first got there we didn’t play Four Corners very much and he called me one night and asked me about it,” Williams said. “I said, coach, I love it, too, but my team’s better right now just running the dickens out of it.
“... But that was just a way of Roy Williams saying thank you.”
Paige had seen clips of the Four Corners. And Justin Jackson, the freshman forward, “was pretty familiar with it,” though he’d never exactly studied it. Jackson knew this much, though:
“I know Phil Ford used to run it and kill everybody,” he said. “It was a really successful play that they would run. Obviously, it was a little different without a shot clock. But it definitely worked.”
Williams needed only about five minutes to teach it Friday. While he laid out what his players were to do, he guarded Paige.
“I didn’t expect him to actually get in a stance and kind of like stay in front of me for a little bit,” Paige said. “And I didn’t want to hurt him.”
Nine seconds into the game, after Georgia Tech won the tip, the Tar Heels forced a turnover. A Paige steal. UNC players held up four fingers and the starters set up the offense, spreading out to their positions on the court.
This was the moment. Paige said he’d been excited but apprehensive.
“I realized that I was going to be the one in the middle, making the play,” he said. “So I was like, ‘all right, relax. You’re a basketball player. You can do this.’”
Williams was hoping Georgia Tech would be in man defense, and it was. The plan was to work through the offense for a while and, if nothing developed, switch to something else.
But Johnson beat his man on a backdoor cut to the basket and Paige threaded a pass to him down the lane. Johnson caught it and scored on a layup, almost all in one motion. The possession had lasted 15 seconds – far shorter than a typical Four Corners possession lasted under Smith decades ago.
No matter. It went as well as Williams could have hoped, with the exception that many in attendance hadn’t noticed the tribute. Williams said he was hoping more would have. But the moment wasn’t so much for the fans as it was an opportunity for Williams, and his team, to do something to honor Smith.
“I wanted it to be something,” Wiliams said, “very sincere from our team – the University of North Carolina basketball team – to coach Dean Smith.”