North Carolina's talent meshes at right time

Posted: Sunday, March 27, 2005

SYRACUSE, N.Y. — No one ever questioned North Carolina's talent.

Last season, Rashad McCants (scoring), Sean May (rebounding) and Raymond Felton (assists) became the first trio of teammates to lead the Atlantic Coast Conference in those categories, and they all returned for their junior years.

The only doubt about the Tar Heels was how well they would play together. With so many stars, would there be enough basketballs to go around?

Coach Roy Williams helped alleviate that problem last fall, giving the team a simple motto for the upcoming season and convincing them to believe in it: ''IT IS AMAZING WHAT CAN BE ACCOMPLISHED IF NO ONE CARES WHO GETS THE CREDIT.''

Suddenly, McCants was turning down shots to pass to May, who in turn was going after rebounds with more intensity than ever. And Felton did what he always does, pushing the ball up the court and forcing the tempo of the game.

The result was stunning, an outright ACC regular-season title for the first time since 1993 and No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Now, North Carolina (30-4) is one victory away from the Final Four, playing sixth-seeded Wisconsin (25-8) on Sunday in the final of the Syracuse Regional.

''I think that was probably the most instrumental thing about our season,'' McCants said Saturday. ''We had a lot of guys sacrificing a lot of their parts of game just to be successful.''

No one did more of that than McCants. Through 30 games — he missed four with an intestinal disorder — he has taken 120 fewer shots than last season, when he averaged 20 points. He has more assists than turnovers for the first time in his career while his scoring fell more than four points a game.

McCants credits Williams for his own turnaround and that of the team.

''Coach wanted us to go out and just believe in him, that he was going to take us to the promised land,'' McCants said. ''He's been successful in the past getting here many times, and we had never really won anything. So if we just got on his back and just rode him, we would get here.''

Williams, as most coaches do, deflects any praise that comes his way, choosing instead to point to the maturity and talent of his players. There's no doubt those also are factors why the Tar Heels got to the round of eight for the first time in five years, but Williams was the one who nudged them in that direction.

And with four previous trips to the Final Four, he inspired confidence in them from Day 1 on campus.

''I have always felt very comfortable in getting kids to play as a team,'' Williams said. ''I've always been very comfortable as a coach, and I've got the best staff of anybody in the world. But I think just saying that we're here because of me, that's so far off-base. That's like saying I birdie every hole.''

His counterpart in Sunday's game, Wisconsin's Bo Ryan, also has received a lot of credit, even if some of it sounds like blame. Over and over during his stay in Syracuse, Ryan has been grilled about his swing offense, which at times has been called plodding, outdated and downright boring by those asking the questions.

Through it all, the veteran coach has shown the same type of patience he preaches to his players when they're looking for a shot.

''Our guys are like anybody else,'' Ryan said. ''They like to play. I mean, we've never told our players to milk the shot clock, to do this, to do that. We've never done it. Get a good shot, that's all. What coach doesn't tell their team to get a good shot?''

One thing he clearly has in common with Williams is the devotion and respect of his players.

''He's a great coach,'' Wisconsin forward Mike Wilkinson said. ''He knows the game extremely well. It's almost amazing in a way, the way he knows what's going to happen during a game. He's really competitive, too. You can almost look at him and tell that he would get out on the court, if he could.''

May feels the same way about Williams. During the Tar Heels' narrow victory over Villanova on Friday night, May questioned something he was told on the bench before quickly relenting and following the advice of his coach.

''There were times when I thought I was right on something and he said, 'I've been coaching a long time, I know a lot more than you,''' May said. ''And I said, 'Yes, sir,' and I changed it. When you have coaches that instill a lot of confidence in you, it allows for them to hide your weaknesses and showcase your talent.''



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