When post player Kennedy Meeks was sidelined by a bruised knee a month into the season, someone in the Smith Center press room wondered aloud who would start against Tulane in the junior’s place. To those who’d watched North Carolina basketball for any length of time, and certainly since the reign of Dean Smith, there was never any doubt.
Nor was it at all surprising when, two months later, trailing Duke by a point with possession of the ball and the shot clock off, the Tar Heels did not call timeout to set up a final play against an unsettled defense.
Some things are just givens.
In both instances, coach Roy Williams and his 2016 squad followed the dictates of Smith’s system, in place at Chapel Hill for 55 years through the tenures of four coaches who’ve combined for 1,367 victories. Executed with precision, Smith’s approach remains among the most crushingly successful in college basketball history.
“The huge majority of what I do is directly, directly related to Coach Smith,” Williams told me in August 2010. “My whole philosophy is related to Coach Smith – the philosophy offensively and defensively, what I believe in, is from Coach Smith.”
But no matter how much talent is on the floor and how sound the system, breakdowns occur under pressure. Especially when, as is the case this season, you have an inconsistent team and a modestly seasoned point guard, and players are apparently unprepared for a situation they suddenly encounter.
Next in line
Back in December, Smith’s philosophy – calibrated to respect seniority to the point that players grabbed drinks during practice breaks according to class order – inevitably gave Joel James the nod to sub for Meeks.
”I knew I was going to start Joel because he’s a senior,” Williams said later. “He’s deserved it. He’s done some good things.” James played well in 18 minutes. Isaiah Hicks, the other logical alternative to Meeks, came off the bench to play one more minute and was similarly productive as Carolina won 96-72.
Williams is a Smith protégé, not a clone or rote follower. He says he’s made adjustments over the years based on ideas picked up from Georgetown’s John Thompson, Indiana’s Bob Knight, and UNLV’s Jerry Tarkanian, all now long out of the game. He also adapted by taking advice from the retired Smith after returning to Chapel Hill for the 2003-04 season.
Smith watched Tar Heel practices three or four times a week and, when Williams was out for a mid-day walk or jog, left notes on his former assistant’s desk. Whether those observations and suggestions became part of the mix, or were set aside, Smith’s overarching precepts remained intact. Occasionally they still come into sharp focus, as was the case in this season’s first meeting with Duke.
Smith famously hoarded timeouts until game’s end. He did not use them to give players a breather or to make substitutions. He rarely called a timeout to slow an opponent’s momentum or to give his squad a chance to regain its composure.
Williams, true to his training, rode out the turbulence without interruption as N.C. State raced to an early 23-10 lead last week at Raleigh. His patience was vindicated; by halftime the Tar Heels led by five en route to an easy victory.
According to Smith, if a team finds itself in catch-up mode, timeouts are interspersed judiciously with strategic fouls to milk the clock and to swap offensive and defensive lineups. That end-game manipulation, like UNC’s foul line huddles, is widely employed today.
Smith also called timeout late in a game when UNC needed a basket and the defense was set. Then he instructed his team to run a play tailored to fit the circumstances. The alignment wasn’t conjured spontaneously, but rather was familiar through repetition. “I don’t think there’s a situation that occurred in my four years that we hadn’t practiced before,” said Ged Doughton, who played at UNC from 1976-79.
Attack without pause
If an opposing defense was off-balance in a game’s climactic moments, Smith tried to keep it that way. The teacher in him trusted his players were properly trained, knowing what to do without surrendering the strategic edge in order to receive additional instruction.
Williams relied on that example as the ’16 Heels moved upcourt looking for the winning points against Duke on Feb. 17.
“The last play, we get the ball and … I’m not blaming it on Coach Smith by any means, it’s my call, I think you should always attack before the defense gets set,” Williams explained afterward, choking back tears. “I’ve always believed (that). It was what I was taught. It’s the way I’ve always played.
“I told the kids I should have called a timeout. We didn’t get as good of a shot as I thought we would get, but that’s just what I’ve always believed in. Even though I say it’s my fault, if we had to do it tomorrow night, I would probably do the same thing, because I think that’s the best way to play.”
Presumably next time, however, the Heels (23-6) will be better prepared, knowing who should get the ball, and where, without being reminded. And of course without forcing Williams to call a timeout in defiance of his coaching instincts.
After all, some things are just givens.
Unfortunately, givens tend to include a few popular prejudices too. For decades Smith’s system was derided as mechanical, robotic. A pair of national championships quieted sniping about Smith’s approach, other than the enduringly ignorant comment he was the only person who held Michael Jordan under 20 points per game. Never mind that Jordan averaged 20.0 in 1983. Why ruin a juicy bit of snark?
Another enduring stereotype resurfaced this month regarding Carolina’s archrival, on the schedule this Saturday to conclude the regular season. After observing in a column for Yahoo that Duke is “the ultimate lightning-rod program,” writer Pat Forde identifies Grayson Allen, who gives no quarter with the ball in his hands, as “the next adorable/deplorable Caucasian Dukie, depending on your point of view.”
Forde raises the specters of Christian Laettner and J.J. Redick, Blue Devil greats often portrayed with some justification as arrogance personified. Before them Duke detractors knocked rough-edged forward Dan Meagher and Danny Ferry, the 1988 and 1989 ACC player of the year notorious for employing an arsenal of shady tricks. Laettner was accompanied by petulant Bobby Hurley. And there were all those wins and Final Four visits, and talk of Mike Krzyzewski’s model program, evoking both admiration and resentment that obviously lingers.
As for Allen, he’s a remarkably gifted, unostentatious athlete with an aggressive mentality that elevates his game. In this season when rules were supposedly tweaked to give an advantage to offensive players, Allen adaptively seizes every opportunity to take the attack to defenders. He leads Duke in scoring, assists, free throws and 3-point accuracy. The fearless guard often winds up on the floor, both because he initiated the contact and because opponents resort to extraordinary measures to keep him in check.
But no amount of in-game punishment excuses Allen’s devolving sportsmanship. Twice this month he’s been caught intentionally tripping opponents – first Louisville’s Ray Spalding and last Thursday night Florida State’s Xavier Rathan-Mayes. The latter infraction earned a public reprimand from the ACC and reinforced the dark side of the popular Duke narrative.
What particular school Allen plays for doesn’t matter in appreciating his game and counting him among the ACC’s best. Unless, as Forde suggests, you insist on bringing the outside world’s overabundance of animosity to the games we love.