KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Villanova fans had no idea when Miami beat North Carolina, 68-59, back in January that something bad had just happened to them.
It was then that a discouraged Roy Williams decided to stray from his long-established coaching philosophy and install a smaller lineup. As a result, North Carolina (24-10) has turned its season around and developed some topflight 3-point shooters.
That could be a problem when Villanova (20-13) faces North Carolina tonight in the second round of the NCAA Tournament because perimeter defense has been a season-long bugaboo for the Wildcats.
“They definitely shoot the ball well,” said Villanova guard Ryan Arcidiacono. “In practice earlier (Thursday) we were working on it. That’s what we’ve been trying to do these past couple days, just trying to get better at defending the 3-point line.”
Carolina has hit 255 3-pointers – almost eight a game – and accelerated the pace as the season wore on. Complicating things for anyone trying to guard the perimeter against the Tar Heels is the height of some of their top shooters, Reggie Bullock (6-7) and P.J. Hairston (6-5). Hairston, a part-time starter, is 81-for-208 from behind the arc while Bullock is 84-for-192 – a solid 43.8 percent.
The Wildcats have given up 30 more 3-pointers than they’ve scored.
“They have great guard play,” said Arcidiacono. “Great shooters, great defenders. Me, Darrun (Hilliard), the rest of the guards we have great responsibility. But at the end of the day, it just falls on just doing what we do. We have to focus on the little things. It’s just a matter of not letting them play harder than us.”
Williams admits it was tough making the decision to go in a different direction.
“It’s been interesting and it’s also been scary because it’s not something I’ve been comfortable with,” Williams said. “Most coaches develop a philosophy, a style that they stick with most of the time. If you’ve done it for 25 years as a head coach, you’re probably not going to change very much.”
North Carolina will be facing one of the most up-and-down teams in the tourney. The Wildcats were good enough to beat both Louisville and Syracuse, and bad enough to lose at home to Columbia by 18 and Alabama by 22. Just before the Alabama debacle, they carved out an 89-81 overtime win against Purdue.
“The coaching staff was sitting there saying, ‘Who is this team?’ In the Purdue game, we were saying the same thing – who is this team?” said coach Jay Wright. “They’ve had some incredible accomplishments, and we’ve had some great disappointments. That’s just the personality of this team.”
It could be a memorable day for Williams in more ways than one. If his eighth-seeded Tar Heels get past the ninth-seeded Wildcats, it will be his 700th career victory, a plateau few have reached.
“That is a great accomplishment for him and I am honored to be a part of it,” said Tar Heel guard Dexter Strickland.
Said Bullock, “It would mean a lot to me and this team. “He has been a great person to us. We definitely want to make him get to that point.”
A total of 418 of those wins came during Williams’ 15 years at Kansas. And thousands of Jayhawk fans cramming the Sprint Center to see their team play Western Kentucky today know it well.
Many were bitter when Williams left for North Carolina three years after turning the Tar Heels down and vowing to remain a Jayhawk for life. Many still are bitter, even though Kansas has faced Williams’ North Carolina teams twice in the NCAA Tournament since then, and won twice.
It is the first time Williams has brought his team just a few miles from the Jayhawks’ storied Allen Fieldhouse. The reception he receives today will be interesting. Williams and his players said it’s they haven’t given any thought to the possibility of North Carolina meeting Kansas in the third round.
“When I came back to North Carolina, it was a very emotional thing,” Williams said. “It’s a very emotional thing when I didn’t go the first time and it was when I did go the second time. I realize some people were upset when I left. Hopefully, time is going to cure a lot of those problems.”