By Adam Lucas
This story is not for right now.
Roy Williams doesn’t need anyone pointing out how great he is this week. He’s on his way to his ninth Final Four as a coach and his fifth since he returned to Carolina. That makes five Final Fours in 14 seasons; just to give you a frame of reference, Dean Smith went to four Final Fours in his final 14 seasons as Carolina’s head coach.
This week, then, Williams is an acknowledged genius. This column is for that inevitable time—whether it be Saturday night or next November—when the world once again decides he’s a questionable coach. You know it’s coming. Sooner or later, he won’t call timeout at the right time, or he’ll play too much/not enough zone, or he’ll use the wrong rotation.
What follows is a short and not exhaustive list of some of the technical adjustments Williams made that enabled Carolina to defeat Kentucky on Sunday evening. Not included in this list are season-long coaching moves such as developing a bench (remember all those cries of “Why is Luke Maye playing?” back in November and December?) or motivating Justin Jackson to work hard enough to become the ACC Player of the Year.
No, these are purely chalkboard-type items, just a few moves by a Hall of Fame coach that gave his team the best opportunity to advance to the Final Four.
The entire world had decided Theo Pinson was going to defend 47-point scorer Malik Monk in Sunday’s game. Williams played along during Saturday’s press availability, but had already determined Jackson would defend Monk while Pinson matched up against De’Aaron Fox.
It worked. Jackson’s length frustrated Monk, and Jackson was just physical enough to unsettle the rookie. Monk went to the floor midway through the first half and glared at an official when no call was made; it was a great sign for the Tar Heels, as the freshman seemed rattled and never got into a rhythm. He went from the 4:31 mark of the first half until the 0:39 mark of the second half without scoring a point.
Fox, meanwhile, shot 5-for-14, including 3-for-9 in the second half. Every great coach sometimes needs a little luck, too. That’s part of what happened with Fox, as he unexpectedly picked up two fouls while matched up against Stilman White in a key first half stretch and spent most of the remaining half on the bench.
Yes, it really happened. After Isaac Humphries’ continued his offensive assault to give Kentucky a 64-59 lead with 5:09 remaining, Williams called his first timeout of the second half. The timeout was a little unusual, but the setting was familiar. Carolina had just recovered from a five-point deficit against Arkansas in the final three minutes to advance to the Sweet 16.
“Coach was so good with them,” Steve Robinson said right after the win over the Wildcats. “He had said that Arkansas game was going to help us, and that’s what he told them.”
“What we had to do is we had to play,” Williams said. “We had to go get a great shot.”
Theo Pinson made a very tough shot to reverse the slide, and the comeback was underway. Timeouts are not a guaranteed momentum-stopper. But this one was.
It never hurts to take one straight out of the Dean Smith playbook. During that timeout, Williams made the decision to go zone. Kentucky had scored on a staggering 12 offensive possessions in a row; there wasn’t much reason to keep trying the same thing. So the Tar Heels went to a 2-3 in perhaps the key adjustment of the game.
“We went zone just to see if we could give them a different look,” Williams said. “They were getting too much dribble penetration.”
Once the brackets were announced on Selection Sunday, the coaching staff met to determine what should make up the practices for the ensuing weeks. One topic of discussion: zone defense, just in case the Tar Heels needed to provide a defensive changeup to a hot opponent or play through some foul trouble. "If you go back and look at our practice plans for the last three weeks, probably 50 to 60 percent of the time we're working on zone," Williams said on his radio show Monday night.
The Wildcats were empty in two possessions against the zone, Kennedy Meeks recorded a key blocked shot, and the Tar Heels were able to successfully keep Kentucky off the offensive glass.
“With five minutes to go, I told the staff in the huddle, ‘They’re going to go zone,’” John Calipari said. “Some guys argued. I said, ‘They’re going to go zone.’ And we did not quite execute. We weren’t in the spots we were supposed to be in, and it kind of started from there.”
This was the smallest, tiniest part of the game-winning play, but it’s also something Carolina practices beginning in October. Everyone knows that Theo Pinson threw the pass to Luke Maye for Maye’s lifechanging jumper. But remember that Kennedy Meeks threw the ball to Pinson to initiate the play.
And it wasn’t just a simple pass. After Monk made the game-tying three-pointer, Meeks immediately grabbed the ball out of the net and tossed the inbounds pass. There was no hesitation, no waffling over who was supposed to take the ball out, no looking to the sideline. Grab the ball, get it, and go. That’s a fundamental Williams teaches in every practice.
Did it make a difference? It might have. The Wildcats never got set defensively. “I probably should have called a timeout,” Calipari said. “It entered my mind, but they got the ball in so quick, I couldn’t get anybody to do it. But I needed to stop that right there.”
He couldn’t, because the Tar Heels executed what Williams teaches them at every practice starting on the first day of the year. When you sit at a Carolina practice, sometimes you wonder why the head coach is fanatical about execution after a made opposing shot. For fourteen years in Chapel Hill, he’s been preaching it. Sunday, it paid off in the biggest possible way.