From good friends to rivals: Why UNC’s Roy Williams has been rooting for Pitt

Pittsburgh coach Kevin Stallings worked for Roy Williams at Kansas for five seasons.
Pittsburgh coach Kevin Stallings worked for Roy Williams at Kansas for five seasons. rwillett@newsobserver.com

Roy Williams found himself rooting for Pittsburgh the other night and it wasn’t because the Panthers were playing N.C. State.

Pitt coach Kevin Stallings was on Williams’ first staff at Kansas and is one of his best friends in the coaching community.

The Panthers, 0-10 in the ACC, had a chance to get into the win column against the Wolfpack on Jan. 25. Stallings’ team led by as many as 15 in the first half, and by eight with 5:30 left in the game, but couldn’t close out the Wolfpack.

“I can’t pull any harder than I pulled for him a couple of games ago,” Williams said. “Just dying with him every play. I was almost sick to my stomach at the end of the game.”

It has been a difficult season for Stallings and the Panthers, to say the least. Pitt (8-15) visits the Smith Center on Saturday without an ACC win and as a 23-point underdog.

Pitt’s first seven ACC losses were all by at least 14 points. The Panthers have been more competitive in their last three games with losses to N.C. State (72-68), Syracuse (60-55) and Miami (69-57).

UNC (16-7, 5-5 ACC) has had problems of its own with a three-game ACC losing streak for the first time since 2014.

But Williams has kept up with Stallings and is hoping — after Saturday — the Panthers figure some things out.

“He’s somebody that has been and always will be extremely important to me,” Williams said.

Stallings coached for Williams at Kansas for five seasons, after Williams left Dean Smith’s UNC staff in 1988 to take the Kansas job. The Jayhawks went to the Final Four twice in their time together before Stallings took the Illinois State job in 1994.

“I trusted my professional life with him and still would,” Williams said.

Stallings had a successful run with the Redbirds before taking the Vanderbilt job in 1999. Stallings led Vandy to the NCAA tournament seven times in 17 seasons before he was hired to replace Jamie Dixon at Pitt in 2016.

There are still some schemes and plays that Williams uses that he borrowed from Stallings.

“He’s going to figure out a way to help them get good shots for the best shooters,” Williams said.

Given their relationship, Williams said the initial pushback from Pitt, when Cam Johnson had wanted to transfer to UNC but was not cleared by the school, was tough.

“We talked one time (about Johnson),” Williams said. “I think it was in the spring because we had just been contacted by them. He told me what he thought the university’s stance would be. I’m not even sure we talked about it again.”

Pitt eventually cleared Johnson transfer to UNC as a graduate student. Johnson, after missing the first 11 games with injuries, has emerged as a starter and one of UNC’s best players.

Johnson, who averages 12.7 points per game, had a career-high 32 points in UNC’s loss at Clemson on Tuesday.

Saturday will be the first time Johnson will play against his former team but there aren’t many connections between Johnson and this year’s Pitt squad.

Fifth-year senior guard Jonathan Milligan is the only healthy scholarship player on Pitt that played with Johnson last season.

Stallings, in his second season at Pitt, coached Johnson for one season but didn’t recruit him. Stallings has remade the Pitt roster and the Panthers are going through growing pains with seven freshmen.

Williams is confident Stallings, once the younger players develop, will be successful with the Panthers.

“Sometimes the other team has a bigger weapon and more bullets,” Williams said.

Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio

Pitt at No. 19 UNC

When: 8 p.m., Saturday

Where: Smith Center, Chapel Hill

TV/radio: WRAL, 106.1-WTKK

Pitt (8-15, 0-10 ACC)

G Marcus Carr 10.5 ppg, 4.3 apg

G Parker Stewart 8.3 ppg, 2.7 rpg

G Khameron Davis 4.9 ppg, 3.0 rpg

F Jared Wilson-Frame 13.0 ppg, 3.7 rpg

F Kene Chukwuka 2.6 ppg, 2.6 rpg

UNC (16-7, 5-5 ACC)

G Joel Berry 17.5 ppg, 3.5 rpg

G Kenny Williams 11.0 ppg, 3.3 rpg

G Cam Johnson 12.7 ppg, 4.7 rpg

F Theo Pinson 9.1 ppg, 4.2 apg

F Luke Maye 18.0 ppg, 10.4 rpg

Storyline: Roy Williams said sophomore guard Seventh Woods practiced on Thursday and Friday and will be game-time decision. Woods has missed the past 16 games with a foot injury. With guard Jalek Felton suspended, UNC does not have a backup point guard for Joel Berry, who played 39 minutes in Tuesday’s loss at Clemson.

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