No such thing as a 'must win'

Sports views

Posted: Monday, April 04, 2005

ST. LOUIS — There is no such thing as a must-win game.

Keep that in mind when somebody carries on about how much Roy Williams needs to win the national championship when his North Carolina team faces Illinois. By the same token, nobody who's owned a television set the past 15 years should question how much Williams wants to win.

He would love to do it for the people of the state he grew up in, and for the program that gave him his first break. He'd love to win for the mother who took a second job ironing shirts in her home so Williams would have enough change in his pocket to join the rest of the kids in the neighborhood for a soda after playing basketball.

Williams would love to win it for all the young men who played their hearts out for him, all those assistants who worked long hours to prepare him, and for Dean Smith and everybody else who ever mentored him. He would love to win because he would finally have the ''W'' that would validate the 469 that came before it.

And he would love to win it most of all because, as Williams said Sunday for what seemed like the millionth time, ''if we don't win, it puts a heck of a lot more pressure on old Roy.''

But must-win?

No. Just remember what Marv Levy said after arriving at the Super Bowl for the fourth consecutive year, on the heels of three straight losses by his Buffalo Bills. When a reporter asked if those made No. 4 a must-win game, Levy replied calmly and with flawless logic.

''No,'' he said. ''World War II was a must win.''

The only problem with the line, as Williams' odyssey wends its way through a fifth Final Four, is that it's already been used.

Like Levy or baseball's Gene Mauch or former NBA coach Don Nelson, he's become the guy who hasn't won the big one, college basketball's version of the best player never to win a major. The label was slapped on him when Williams brought Kansas to a second Final Four in only his fifth season there, and the pressure has ramped up with every NCAA tournament appearance since.

As if that wasn't enough, he's matched against a coach, Illinois' Bruce Weber, who's here for the first time and who got his job in a chain-reaction hiring crash that began when Williams left Kansas for North Carolina. On top of that, Williams is leading a Tar Heel squad tabbed as the most talented team in the country, and that was even before the season began.

''The perception is, if we win, 'Gosh, you're supposed to win. Roy, if you couldn't win with that group, you ain't ever going to win,''' Williams said.

''I really think that's going to happen. You know, I hope it does. They can say anything they want to about me. If we win it, they're going to say, 'God, you had to have that good a team to win.''' "That,'' he added, ''is fine with me.''

It's not, of course, but Williams doesn't dare say anything else. He learned that after trying to answer the question honestly the first few times. So Williams, now 55 and fast becoming a graying eminence in the profession, falls back on the same answers. Or he retells the story of how Dean Smith was 52 and in his seventh Final Four before he won it all.

''I had tears rolling down my face,'' Williams, who was Smith's assistant at the time, recalled Sunday. ''I said, 'I'm so happy because it will shut those people up.'

''And he said, 'I'm not that much better a coach now than I was two and a half hours ago.' You sit back and think about it, and he really wasn't.''

Even without a title, Williams has Hall of Fame credentials and enough testimonials to paper the wall of his office. His reconstruction job at North Carolina has been nothing short of brilliant, taking over a team that was 8-20 in the final season of Matt Doherty's brief, turbulent tenure and putting it back in the Final Four.

''The program is here to stay as long as Roy Williams is in charge,'' Smith said earlier this week. ''There's no NCAA violations, so he's done it the right way. He does work himself too hard. He flies out any open day he has to visit a prospect's home, during the time you can. But I'm just so happy for him and the team.''

And Smith is not the only one. More than one of the coaches he's beat somewhere along the NCAA tournament road, from Lute Olson to Mike Krzyzewski, have made him their sentimental favorite. Three years ago, he played Syracuse and Jim Boeheim, another guy who hadn't won the big one, and still drew the short end of the straw.

To change his luck in tournaments past, Williams has ordered the team bus stopped to spit in the Mississippi River. He's stopped off, too, to pat the gravestone of basketball inventor Dr. James Naismith and even showed up at meetings with a stuffed monkey draped across his shoulders so his players could pull it off his back.

They get one more chance to do that Monday night.

''There's only so much a coach can do, even coach Williams. He can sweat and get nervous all he wants,'' Carolina guard Rashad McCants said, ''but it's always going to be up to us.''

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press.

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