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A new NCAA rule allowed college basketball teams to begin practice earlier than ever before this year. Roy Williams sat down for an exclusive conversation about his eleventh Carolina team. The Tar Heels will play an exhibition game against UNC Pembroke in the Smith Center on Friday night (buy tickets).
GoHeels.com: How will the NCAA rules allowing you to start practice earlier affect what you're able to do in the preseason?
Roy Williams: The most truthful answer is that I don't know. I'm not 100 percent in favor of it, because our season is so long as it is. I worry all the time about guys getting burned out mentally and physically by the end of the year. Now they're saying we can spread out our practices, and we can't go 30 straight days, but the bottom line is we started September 27 instead of October 18. To me, that's a longer season.
Part of it will be good, because we'll be able to go slower and do some more things. It's not an advantage, though, because everyone will be doing it. I've talked to some other coaches about how they're going to handle it. I know for sure we don't know what the perfect plan is, but we're going to try and spread it out quite a bit.
Last year, we had 21 or 22 practices before the first game. This year, we'll have 30. Teams should be more prepared before the first game, but everyone else will be, too. With a team that's still very young, this could help us, but I'm very concerned about the length of the season.
GH: Now that you've had a chance to think back on it, how did being forced to play small confirm your beliefs about the best way to play?
RW: It was the best thing for our team. But deep down, I think it's hard to win a championship without being able to defend the rim and dominate the backboards. I see very few teams win a national championship when their primary weapon is the three-point shot. Eventually it gets to a point that there is more pressure and defenses are better.
Last year reinforced the fact that I want a big-time rebounding team that can defend the rim and has great balance. Last year, we didn't have very good balance. We've had many years when we made more free throws than our opponents shot. I want to get back to that type of play.
GH: Did last year change any of your beliefs about the best way to play?
RW: It showed me there's more than one way to skin a cat. In golf, some guys hits draws and some hit fades, but they're still trying to get to the middle of the fairway. It does show you can do things differently. It showed me our kids were very willing to try different things even if it meant giving up time to be successful. Desmond Hubert is a prime example. He was playing many more minutes, but we went small and I never saw anything negative from him. That says great things about him, but our whole team had that attitude.
GH: You mentioned that you wanted a big-time rebounding team. Can this team be big-time on the glass?
RW: It remains to be seen. We're going to be bigger and play bigger, and we're going to play with a bigger lineup more often for longer periods during the game. Someone like J.P. (Tokoto) and P.J., (Hairston) for example, they understand the importance of rebounding even more now. Those two guys right there will be much better rebounders for us this year.
GH: You and Coach Smith have both talked about the dramatic improvements that can be made between a freshman and sophomore season. If that's the case this year, what can you expect from your sophomores?
RW: Let's take them individually. With Brice (Johnson), we'll see a better rebounder with more stamina, more strength, more energy and the same ability to score. He's 10 to 15 pounds heavier and he's playing so much harder. That's one thing that will jump out to everybody.
Joel (James) is like a chiseled mountain right now. He's worked incredibly hard on his body. He did not play any pickup from the end of the season until June because he had some issues with both knees. He took a lot of time off, and trainers and doctors did a lot of work to make sure his knees were stronger. He's completely different physically. Just the experience of playing last year is going to help Joel. I have to give him more time and more opportunities because he's a difference-maker with size and strength that no one else has.
Marcus (Paige) had a fantastic year. He didn't shoot the ball worth a darn early in the year, but he made some really big shots for us as the season progressed. I think he will shoot the ball even better this year. He's gone from 157 pounds to 171 and that's a nice thing for him. He might even need a little more. He will be a better player for us defensively. People will see him spend some time at the two because of Nate (Britt) and Luke (Davis).
J.P. understands more of what we want him to do. He's stronger. He has worked on his shot and that will be better, but he will be even more focused on the things he already can do defensively and rebounding and running the floor. All J.P. has to do is cut down on his turnovers and shoot a little better percentage, and then everyone will see that his athleticism can be an important factor.
GH: You've talked several times recently about needing your team to be better defensively. Does this team have the potential to be the kind of defensive group you want them to be?
RW: I really believe this team has a chance to be a much better defensive team. Nate and Luke will fight you. P.J. is a million times better defender than most people think. He can be a really good defender. Leslie has to get better and step up. Up front, James Michael is going to be much better, Desmond is a good defender, and we need Joel to cover more ground and protect the rim. This can be a good team. Can it be a great team?
GH: A lot of people have opinions on James Michael's first two years. Yours might be the one that matters the most. How do you think he has played so far?
RW: The first part of his freshman year, he didn't play nearly as well as we thought he'd play. But then John (Henson) got hurt and he stepped up. He had Harrison (Barnes) and Z (Tyler Zeller) that people were focusing on. He was phenomenal in that stretch at the end of his freshman year.
Last year, everyone expected him to be the best player in the universe, and when he wasn't, they said negative things. But he's getting better and better. Last year, it was difficult for him because he had to play the other team's best big guy defensively. He's 6-foot-8 and he doesn't defend the rim like a Tyler Zeller or a John Henson. He had a tremendous challenge on the defensive end of the floor.
On offense, we tried to spread the floor and give guys driving lanes. James Michael is getting better at that. There was a time when Danny Green, for example, was still learning how to effectively use his dribble. He was able to develop and learn how to do that, and look at what great things he has been able to do for the Spurs. He has learned that you have to be able to take one or two dribbles and do what you want to do. That's what James Michael is learning how to do. He's a wonderful kid, and he is going to be a wonderful player.
GH: In terms of your team's success, does it matter if James Michael ever becomes a player who wants to make a back to the basket post move on every offensive possession?
RW: That's not him. He needs to do it a little more, because we need to get the other team's big guys in foul trouble. James Michael himself understands that more now. What we went through last year is part of the reason he understands that. I'm not going to put him in the low post and never let him leave, because that's not him, but we do need him to score for us inside, and we need him to be a rebounding presence for us.