Remarkable

There was nothing particulary remarkable about Carolina’s 93-81 win over Bucknell Wednesday night. The Tar Heels were disjointed at times. Joel Berry came back from injury, made his first shot but missed his next 11; Theo Pinson scored a career-high 19 points, Luke Maye hit 20 again and Sterling Manley registered a double-double in just 13 minutes of action.

But really it was a game that offered very little in the way of flow and gave the crowd very little to react to, as the Bison hung around by hitting 11 three-point baskets, all of which seemed to come just as it looked like Carolina would pull away for good.

There was nothing particularly ceremonial about this night. Nothing, that is, until the Tar Heels finally pulled away from the Bison late, before the lead that had hovered at four or six swelled to ten and eleven and finally twelve before the buzzer sounded and PA announcer Tony Gilliam asked for the crowd’s attention, interrupting ‘Carolina Victory’ for his most important announcement of the night.

It was there in the pregame notes, that Tar Heel head coach Roy Williams was 399-115 in 14 seasons plus one game since his return to Chapel Hill in 2003. But no real indication that with a win, Williams would become the first coach in NCAA history to register 400 wins at two schools.

But Gilliam made the annoucement, and the crowd that hung around gave their biggest roar of the night, and the team’s two seniors, Berry and Pinson, handed Williams a commemorative game ball, and Williams did his one-armed wave to the crowd. But then, almost as soon as he’d gotten the ball, Williams lobbed it to Eric Hoots and jogged off the court, his team behind him. And that was that. Unremarkable.

Bucknell head coach Nathan Davis came into the media room first; that was a bit unusual. Davis made a brief opening statement, took one question about what he’d seen on film from Luke Maye prior to the game. And that was that.

Williams followed.  “Sorry it took so long,” he said, though it hadn’t, “but I hadn’t met with the team about what’s coming up. Tomorrow’s off and we’re going on an 11-day trip so I had to give them the itinerary and let them know what’s going to be going on. That was the cause for the delay, so . . . alright, anybody got anything.”

Here he was, the 818-win head coach apologizing unnecessarily for making the writers wait for him. And then he took questions, none of which were about the 400-win milestone. 

But if you listened, you could hear why Roy Williams has won 818 games and 400 at Carolina. Because he pays attention to detail. Because he could tell you about Bucknell’s rough start, that the Bison really are a better team than their 0-3 record.  That he was frustrated in the first half, even checking the scoreboard, which he tends not to do in the first 20 minutes. “It was 15 or 16, and we miss a box-out and give ‘em a basket, miss a pick-up assignment and give ‘em a three, then all of a sudden it’s 15 or 16 down to 10, and that gave them a little more confidence, too.”

And he’s right, or close to it. Roy Williams hadn’t had time to check the play by play or watch the film, but 20 minutes after the game concluded, he could tell you what happened when the score went from 43-27 to 43-32 in 42 seconds of game time. 

He could tell you that he liked what he saw from Theo Pinson, but “he’s the one I got mad at for not boxing out, so you don’t want me to praise a guy and you also don’t want me to praise a guy that didn’t go out and close out on #4 that’s bigger than a house . . . then he goes and shoots a three so I was mad at Theo, a great level of anger, but boy you look down and 9 of 10 from the line and he took the ball to the basket and made some plays. Nine of ten from the line, 19 points, six assists, two turnovers, 33 minutes, and I jumped on him one time because he gave the tired signal on the defensive end of the floor. You should never do that. You want to give the tired, give it to me on offense. And so I chewed on him a little bit, but after that, other than no denial over there, I thought he was really something and he made some huge baskets for us.”

He’ll tell you about recruiting Sterling Manley, and seeing the young man after a high school game, running his hand across Manley’s forehead and saying, “You’ve got to learn how to sweat, son,” when the Tar Heel commit asked for Williams’ evaluation. 

Manley has only passed two of the team’s three conditioning tests, and despite his double-double effort Wednesday night, “If he were to get 62 points and 61 rebounds in a game,” Williams said. “He still wouldn’t start the next game; you can’t start if you don’t pass all the running tests.”

Williams could tell you he was happy to see Joel Berry back out there after his hand injury, who managed to score eight points and dish six assists despite shooting just 1-11 with his fingers wrapped. “He’s the one that handed me the ball out there,” he said of Berry. “I told him he was glad it was a hand-off, that he didn’t shoot it to me. It would have not had been a complete pass if he had thrown it to me like his shooting.”

Roy Williams is the king of detail. His recall for specific plays, for specific box-outs (or non-box-outs) is incredible. It’s part of what makes him, well, remarkable. Because Williams is able to praise a player for doing the right thing, stepping up when called upon, and also tell him what needs improving for that player to reach his potential. 

He’s led the Tar Heels to 200 wins in the Smith Center, one in Carmichael, a home game in Greensboro and 198 on the road or at neutral sites. His team will soon embark on a road trip out west, where they’ll stop in Stanford and play against the Cardinal, coached by Jerod Haase, who played for Williams at Kansas and then spent 13 years on his staff. Then he’ll lead his defending national champions into the PK80 Tournament, where they’ll play against Portland and then two more marquee programs, all before a game with Michigan, before a game with Ohio State, before conference play begins in the ACC.

Carolina announced on Wednesday that graduate transfer Cameron Johnson, the apparent starter on the wing who would be counted upon for his three-point shooting and length on the perimeter, would miss four to six weeks after surgery to repair a torn meniscus. It’s another blow, another early-season injury that Williams will have to manage. But the Tar Heels will come through it, will learn more about themselves and come out on the other side of Johnson’s injury a team that’s more sure of itself. 

Again, Roy Williams wasn’t asked a single question about his 400-win milestone in Chapel Hill. He didn’t address it. He didn’t need to, because he’d detailed every thing that made it possible, that made so many of those wins possible.

It was remarkable.