Roy Williams's hesitancy to call timeouts in late-clock situations was learned at the feet of the late-game master, Dean Smith. Williams, like his mentor, often prefers to let his players determine the outcome when the clock ticks under ten seconds, believing they've been prepared for that exact situation through practice and other game experience.
It doesn't always work, especially early in the season, when fans can sometimes be baffled by the refusal to stop and set a play. But, as we've learned over these last few weeks, Williams isn't always coaching to win games in December. He's coaching, as he's fond of saying, for a program.
That program showed the benefits of his approach on Sunday afternoon against Florida State. The Tar Heels won, 79-58, but the most telling play came late in the first half. After a made free throw, Carolina had 5.8 seconds to get the last shot of the half.
Williams caught the eye of freshman point guard Marcus Paige and delivered one simple order: "Attack."
"Earlier in the season, I learned Coach isn't going to call a timeout there," Paige said. "At the beginning of the year, I would've rushed something or tried to throw up a shot that wasn't there. But through experience I've learned how to play with a tight clock situation."
Paige took the inbounds pass below the block/charge arc, but he caught it--as the Tar Heel coaches teach--on the run, with his momentum going upcourt. He raced up the left side, where FSU sent two defenders to challenge him near midcourt.
"They sent two guys to cut me off, and that kind of surprised me," Paige said. "I thought about throwing crosscourt, but I thought they might anticipate that."
Indeed, it looked like the Seminole defense expected Paige to throw across the court to Dexter Strickland or P.J. Hairston. Instead, he found James Michael McAdoo slicing down the middle of the lane for an easy hoop.
"Luckily, 'Mac' saw the same thing I saw, so he slipped to the basket and made a great play," Paige said.
In a 21-point victory, the basket didn't make an enormous difference. But in the context of a season, the late-clock execution might be important. It was a subtly brilliant--and mature--play. If Paige had in any way predetermined where he was going with the ball, it would have ended poorly. Instead, he stayed patient despite the ticking clock, read the floor, found an opening, and adjusted his attack accordingly. At some point in the next month, it's very likely the Tar Heels will have a similar time situation and need a similar hoop. Now, there's evidence they can do it.
That's due to Williams's learn-by-experience teaching method, but it's also due to the progression of Paige, who has evolved into a steady floor general. The rookie has 21 assists and five turnovers over his last three games, and 33 assists and 10 turnovers over his last seven games. After posting just one zero-turnover performance in the nonconference schedule, he already has three such games in ACC play.
Paige has shown a more confident approach in recent games. In Sunday's second half, he was guarded by Florida State's Michael Snaer--one of the league's best perimeter defenders--late in the shot clock on three possessions in the span of four minutes. Paige took him to the basket all three times.
"I'm more confident in trusting my abilities to make a play," Paige said. "He's a very good defender, but when he reaches, I want to be able to take advantage and use the angles to get by."
Of course, as with most freshmen, sometimes that confidence can turn into overconfidence. Paige picked up a sweet assist on his first drive against Snaer, but then tried to do a little too much and committed a turnover on his next try.
"That one," Paige grinned afterward, "was unnecessary. That was a freshman mistake."
Predictably, his head coach loves that kind of accountability. Williams took the somewhat rare step of naming Paige the starter before practice even began. There was some skepticism during the first month of the season, but the Iowa native has proven his head coach correct.
And even when Paige has made mistakes, Williams likes the way he has handled it. "I've believed in him from the start of the year, and he hasn't done anything that makes me not believe in him," Williams said. "He's so mature about the game of basketball. When he makes a mistake, he takes responsibility for it."
The 6-foot-0 freshman also possesses a characteristic most coaches love: he very rarely makes the same mistake twice. Tonight's game against Maryland (7 p.m. on ESPN, and yes, the Tar Heels arrived in town last night ahead of the snowstorm that is currently dumping sheets of snow at the team hotel) marks the back half of the fifth home-and-home series Carolina has played this year.
In the first meeting against teams the Tar Heels have played twice, Paige averaged six points per game and handed out 21 assists against 16 turnovers.
But in the second meeting against those five opponents, Paige is averaging nearly ten points per game and has 29 assists with seven turnovers.
Both of Carolina's remaining games are against repeat opponents. Williams spent the first portion of the schedule teaching a few lessons. Now he's ready for Paige to continue to demonstrate what he's learned.