By Adam Lucas
GREENSBORO—There are more elements of coaching than just what you see on the sideline.
Sure, there are offensive and defensive sets to call, and substitutions to make, and timeouts to call (just kidding about that last part). But a great deal of coaching—the part that can eventually get you into the Hall of Fame, and help you win over 800 basketball games—takes place where very few people ever see it.
This could be an ominous statement. Williams was coming off an ineffective 1-for-3 shooting game against Pitt, and hadn’t made more than two baskets in a game since the trip to Wake Forest. More troubling to the head coach, Williams grabbed just one rebound against the Panthers.
“He was just joking around,” Kenny Williams said of the dramatic summons to the head coach’s office. But the message itself was serious.
“He told me he believed in me,” the player said. “And as a result of that, I should believe in myself. It was very helpful confidence-wise. It gave me a little confidence boost and I showed that.”
He certainly did. Williams poured in 11 points in Sunday’s 83-76 win over Notre Dame, draining three three-pointers, and looked much more like the November version of himself than the recent incarnation.
Of course, Kenny Williams isn’t the only player who has made a visit to the head coach’s office this year. Back in January, it was Isaiah Hicks, who had looked a little lost early in the ACC schedule and seemed unsure how to find his role in the Tar Heel offense.
This time, there was no dramatic pronouncement in front of the players. But there was a similar message.
“He told me to just play basketball,” Hicks said. “He wanted me to stop thinking about what just happened or what’s going to happen next. Just play basketball.”
After scoring 14 points on six-of-10 shooting against the Irish, Hicks is now averaging 14.6 points per game over his last eight contests. The hesitation in his game has been eliminated, and he frequently dominated a smaller Notre Dame team.
The most eyebrow-raising play was probably his hoop in the first half, when he found the middle of the Irish zone, received the pass, then unleashed a spinning, whirling drive that culminated with a bank shot sweetly through the rim, giving Carolina a three-point lead. A minute later, he found the soft spot in the zone and scored again, as Hicks' contributions helped the Tar Heels eventually play Notre Dame out of the defense that has occasionally been problematic against Carolina this year.
But as Hicks said, he’s also spending less time thinking about his mistakes. He uncorked a couple of bad turnovers on Sunday but played through them. Yes, he rocketed a pass out of bounds, but he also worked with Justin Jackson on a beautiful play late in the second half. With Hicks holding the ball near the top of the key, he shouted, “Justin!” and gave the junior an almost imperceptible nod. Hicks gave the ball to Jackson and readied to set a screen…but then slipped the screen, headed to the basket, and gathered Jackson’s pass in time for a gorgeous basket.
“Earlier in the year, when I did stupid stuff, I was thinking about it over and over,” Hicks said. “Today, when I made a mistake, I just played through it and moved on to the next one.”
Every great play isn’t attributable to coaching, of course. And every great game from a Tar Heel isn’t due to some magical words of wisdom by the head coach. Sometimes, though, it’s worthwhile to remember that a team is built just as much in those moments we don’t see as the ones that happen on the hardwood. Sometimes a few words make a big difference.
Carolina won, 83-76, and remains in first place in the ACC. Williams scored 11. Hicks had 14. “I guess that right there,” Kenny Williams said, “shows how great that talk was.”