Photo: 1) Dean Smith and Roy Williams; 2) Garrison Brooks
CHARLOTTE – As North Carolina took its turn on stage at the ACC basketball media day, the dominant subject was the Tar Heels blending their new roster. They have an influx of newcomers following the loss of four starters and six players in all.
Roy Williams, with seniors Garrison Brooks and Brandon Robinson accompanying him, broke down lineup possibilities. Later he took a question that allowed him to reach back to keep current the program's foundation. Not all storied programs can do it like Williams.
The breakdown starts with replacing three senior starters, Cam Johnson, Luke Maye and Kenny Williams, and an NBA one-and-done starter, Coby White. Two more that have departed are backup Nassir Little as a one-and-done and backup Seventh Woods as a transfer to South Carolina.
The lone returning starter is Brooks, a 6-foot-9, 235-pound power forward. Robinson (6-5, 173) and sophomore guard/small forward Leaky Black (6-8, 195) are back after significant minutes.
The talented incoming freshmen include two five-star recruits, point guard Cole Anthony and power forward Armando Bacot (6-10, 232), and two four-stars, shooting guard Anthony Harris (6-4, 190) and point guard Jeremiah Francis (6-0, 210).
A graduate transfer contending for a starting job is shooting guard Christian Keeling (6-3, 180) by way of College of Charleston. Another grad transfer in the rotation is small forward Justin Pierce (6-7, 210) of William & Mary.
Sterling Manley (6-11, 250) is in the mix once he overcomes soreness to his knee that is slowing him again; last year he was limited to 16 games.
That’s a lot of names, but no matter how often the roster changes one still Hall-of-Fame name identifies the program more than any other.
Williams, a Smith disciple, wouldn’t have it any other way.
And it’s not just because the Tar Heels play in the Dean Dome, the Dean E. Smith Center.
Williams, 69, is entering his 17th season – two more than his time at Kansas – since returning to his alma mater after the program’s two-year absence from NCAA Tournament play under former coach (and player) Matt Doherty. In his return home, Ol' Roy has won three NCAA titles (2005, 2009 and 2017), which is one more than Smith. He’s been inducted into both the Basketball Hall of Fame (2007) and the College Basketball Hall of Fame (2006).
But Williams, who played on North Carolina’s freshman team in the Dean Smith era, continues to deflect the program’s identity to his mentor, whose last season on the sidelines was 1996-97 and who passed away in 2015.
“I do think he's the greatest coach that ever was,” Williams said. “People say that your numbers are as good or whatever, but when I talk about he's the greatest coach that ever was I thought he did it on and off the court. As much as I try to keep relationships and keep aware of former players, current players, and what they're doing personally and everything, I'm not as good as Coach Smith. So I want to set them a high standard.”
The past/present connection isn’t as easy as Williams makes it look. Consider some other storied programs.
At UCLA, where John Wooden won 10 NCAA titles in 12 years, he’s more a statute outside Pauley Pavilion than a UCLA identity. New Bruins coach Mick Cronin, who arrived from Cincinnati with no UCLA roots, is the 10th coach removed from Wooden. None have made it feel like the good old days in the manner of Williams at North Carolina.
At Kentucky, John Calipari’s identity is as the coach that launched the era of NBA one-and-done combine rosters. Rupp Arena is named for Adolph Rupp, who won four NCAA titles, but that’s not necessarily a name celebrated outside of Lexington. Rupp's reputation for dragging his feet on desegregation has overshadowed his four basketball titles.
Rupp is the polar-opposite of Smith, who took on racial issues head on, including signing Charlie Scott as the ACC’s first black basketball player in 1967-68. Smith was a Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient from President Obama as much for that part of his life as his basketball record.
At Kansas, the names are James Naismith, the inventor of basketball, and Phog Allen, the Father of Basketball Coaching. But Naismith last coached in 1907 and Allen in 1956. Kansas coach Bill Self can only read and hear second-hand stories --- just like the rest of us.
The direct link to Smith is what Williams provides his players.
It's a challenge Duke faces once Mike Krzyzewski, who is entering his 40th year in Durham, once he retires. It's not as easy as naming a Coach K disciple to succeed him. It was slipping away at North Carolina when Matt Doherty, who played for Smith, failed to advance UNC to the NCAA Tournament back-to-back years. His dismissal brought home Williams. The next Duke coach has to win to connect with the good old days.
In a that manner, UCLA hasn't been able to preserve Wooden's direct bond despite three UCLA former players and coaches, Gary Cunningham, Larry Farmer and Walt Hazzard, that were connected to Wooden.
You won't find such a bond at Connecticut with Jim Calhoun, who won three NCAA titles. No one at Louisville wants to connect Denny Crum with Rick Pitino. Villanova has no association between Jay Wright and Rollie Massimino, whose reputation also went to a dark side.
The only comparison to the Smith/Williams bond is found at Michigan State with Jud Heathchote/Tom Izzo. Heathcote handed the reins to Izzo 25 years ago. Similar to Smith/Williams, Izzo has outdone his mentor. Heathcote won one NCAA title (1979) in his only Final Four trip in 19 seasons, while Izzo has an NCAA title (2000) and eight Final Four trips.
But you won’t hear Izzo claiming the basketball program’s identity without first deflecting credit to Heathcote.
Maybe North Carolina won't be able to continue the link once Williams retires, but that doesn't appear to be any day soon. Last year Williams signed contract extension that takes him through 2028. Dean Smith's legacy still beats as a thriving heart through the program. These are still the good old days under Dean's protege.
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Tom Shanahan, Author: Raye of Light http://tinyurl.com/knsqtqu
-- Book on Michigan State's leading role in the integration of college football. It explains Duffy Daugherty's untold pioneering role and debunks myths that steered recognition away from him to Bear Bryant.
Don’t believe the myths at Duffy Daugherty’s expense about Bear Bryant’s motivation to play the 1970 USC-Alabama game or myths about the Charlie Thornhill-for-Joe Namath trade. Bear Bryant knew nothing about black talent in the South while he dragged his feet on segregation.
David Maraniss, Pulitzer Prize winner and biographer; "History writes people out of the story. It's our job to write them back in.”