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The North Carolina coach chats with Athlon Sports writer Michael Bradley.
Roy Williams warned us. Told us before last season his Tar Heels weren’t top-five material. Probably didn’t deserve the top 10, either. But did we listen? Nope. It’s hard to pay close attention when coaches poor-mouth their teams, but we should have believed Old Roy on this one. Instead of defending its 2009 national title with gusto, North Carolina stumbled, finishing 20-17 and a dismal 5-11 (T9th) in ACC play.
As the ’10-11 season dawns, UNC is ready to get back into the national discussion. It won’t be easy. The offseason transfers of David and Travis Wear hurt, and the dismissal of Will Graves from the team just before practice began is a big loss. Still, thanks to the arrivals of a some quality newcomers, most notably Harrison Barnes, Carolina will still be dangerous. Here’s how Williams sees things as the season commences.
ATHLON SPORTS: Do you think part of last year’s trouble was that the team didn’t understand that they had to treat every season differently and can’t live off the past?
ROY WILLIAMS: No, I don’t think so. Each and every year, you want to be proud of or mad at whatever you accomplished the year before, but you have to put it behind you. Tradition is important, but each year is different.
AS: After last season’s disappointments, how happy were you with the team’s offseason attention to getting back on track?
RW: Our preseason conditioning program from September 15 on was the most difficult we ever had. I am ecstatic about how our players responded to the tests we gave them before practice began. They also worked hard over the summer.
AS: Could you be encouraged by the fact that last year’s team regrouped at season’s end and made a run to the NIT final?
RW: I was worried the team wanted to stop playing hard, but I saw some positive things in the NIT. But we’re not going to hang banners for runner-up finishes in the NIT around this place.
AS: How much of a role will your freshmen have this year?
RW: One of the tough things last year was that we had trouble scoring. The freshmen shoot well. Harrison and Reggie [Bullock] have good range and can put the ball on the floor. Kendall [Marshall] is an attacking point guard. We’re going to put a lot on them. The good news is I think they’re good. We have told them there are expectations.
AS: How difficult is it to remain an elite team, year-in and year out?
RW: I’ve been at two places as a head coach, Kansas and North Carolina, where the fans expect it. It is hard to do over a long period of time. You look at Jim Calhoun at Connecticut, Jim Boeheim at Syracuse and Mike Krzyzewski at Duke, and they do it. It’s hard to win at any point, but when you are expected to win every year at a high level, it’s very hard. I like the expectations, and they help us with recruiting kids. It’s great to have history and tradition.
AS: Agents have become a larger problem in college football, and they have been a concern in basketball. Can anything be done to keep them under control?
RW: It’s hard to know all the time what’s going on when you have 800 student-athletes, like we do at North Carolina. We talk about it a lot. I check the ticket list for home games to see who’s sitting in the players’ seats. On road games, I do the list myself. I know who’s coming and where they’re sitting. But you still don’t know. There are a select few people who have given the agent profession a bad name, and because of them, it’s hard to like any of them. The whole profession has been torn down by a few. The solution has to come from the NBA and the NFL. The NCAA has no jurisdiction over agents. Only the things that can police them are the leagues where they work. It’s probably a minority of people, but they kill the whole profession’s reputation by not doing things ethically. They know what they’re doing, my gosh, but it’s hard to legislate morality.
AS: How do you feel about the expanded tournament and the idea that it might get even bigger?
RW: I can make an argument on both sides. It’s one issue where I sit on the fence. I love the specialness of 65 teams. I love that it’s difficult to get in, even though that excluded us last year. At the same time, some teams get excluded that could make a little run. Maybe we could have been one of them. People on both sides could make arguments to me, and I could understand.
AS: How hard was it to dismiss Will Graves from the team in October?
RW: It was the most difficult two days I’ve had in 23 years [as a head coach]. I hated it for the young man. I didn’t want it to happen. I hate it for the team, because he was going to be an important part of the team. You end up punishing other people for one person’s mistake. But you have to do it. If you’re going to do things you’re not supposed to do, you have to pay the consequences.
AS: You said you were going to be “a little meaner” this year. How will that happen?
RW: I won’t do it outside of the locker room. Our preseason conditioning was the toughest we’ve had. Some of the older players have said I’ve mellowed, and I’ve been allowing them to make mistakes and saying, ‘Come on, son, you’re better than that.’ I won’t be there this year. Some teams could handle that because they were more mature. If I need to create some fear this year, I’m okay with that.
AS: Did it bother you that Duke won last year’s national championship?
RW: It didn’t bother me. I said before the season started that I thought that was the best Duke team since I’d been back at Carolina. If you’re going to say that, you can’t be upset if they win the national championship. I’m probably going to be saying the same thing this year, because they have so much back and added a marquee freshman [Kyrie Irving] who can really help them. It’s a great rivalry, and it’s a great thing for both teams to be really good, so it can be the best rivalry in college basketball. We didn’t hold up our end last year. I like it more when we win the national championship, like in 2009, but I’m glad to be part of the rivalry.
I didn’t watch the national championship game. I watched Dancing With The Stars. I was with my daughter, and it worked out well.