GLENDALE, Ariz. —Roy Williams is smiling. He is poking fun at himself, talking about getting struck in the face by a basketball during practice. “My wife didn’t hit me, I assure you,” he said, those words passing beneath the blemish on his upper lip. He is answering questions about strategy and player roles and injuries, the sort of stuff coaches generally do as they approach their biggest games.
And then there’s the political stuff, about his home state’s controversial repealof its controversial HB2 law (he hadn’t seen the new bill, and couldn’t answer) and whether his distaste for Donald Trump’s tweeting habits might lead him to pass on a White House trip,should the Heels win the 2017 NCAA Championship here at University of Phoenix Stadium (he's not answering because there’s nobody “as dadgum superstitious as I am”).
This afternoon offers a respite, though, regarding the NCAA investigation of North Carolina’s academic issues. The entire NCAA Tournament has, to be honest: Not a single time has he been asked a question during an official news conference about the nature of the investigation, or the progress of the investigation, or the potential outcome of the investigation.
In fact, the entire 2016-17 season, and much of the one preceding it, has been therapeutic for Williams. Coaching these Tar Heels — competitors such as point guard Joel Berry, characters such as junior Theo Pinson, high-character guys such as senior guard Nate Britt — has been so delightful as to lighten the burden that still exists while the NCAA case regarding abnormal classes taken by athletes approaches its third anniversary.
“Therapeutic is probably the proper word,” Williams said Thursday. “Because I always say it’s just made it a lot better. But we’ve had some junk swirling around that I haven’t enjoyed or appreciated or felt good about things that were being said. But I could lose myself when I went out on the court with those guys.”
Even 17 months later, I still can’t shake the picture of Williams so drained, so nearly defeated on the eve of the 2015-16 season as we sat on a roll of carpeting adjacent to the court in the Smith Center. He wasn’t used to being pounded in recruiting, but he’d lost Brandon Ingram, Harry Giles and Bam Adebayo in the space of a few months, and those were just the in-state guys.
That was the Roy Williams whohad so many convinced he would retire just to get away from the aggravation. And maybe he would haveif not for coachingMarcus Paige, Brice Johnson and their teammates to within the 2016 championship game. Andthen those guys left, and Justin Jackson and Berry ascended to prominence to get the Heels back to a second consecutive Final Four.
Paige was among the most appealing athletes to grace the Final Four stage in the past three decades:an academic All-American who was bright, engaging and so easy to coach. Williams called him “one of the greatest leaders I’ve ever had.”
Pinson entertains Williams with his practice shenanigans to the point that the coach, who suffers from occasional bouts with vertigo, joked that he relapses sometimes during practice because he’s always trying to figure out where Pinson is at the moment.
“I think the biggest part of the therapy is not only that we’re winning — I think everybody wants to win games — but the type of kids that we have in our programs,” associate head coach Steve Robinson said. “They’ve been great kids. They’ve been problem-free. They allow us to coach and respond to the coaching and do what we ask them to do.
"It’s really refreshing, because I think there was a time period where we struggled with that a little bit, ‘the junk’ as he calls it with the NCAA, I think it started to weigh on him quite a bit, Robinson said. "But I think he finds great comfort and joy by going out on the court and being around these guys.”
As they prepared to play their senior seasons in October 2015, Paige and Johnson told Sporting News the years of the investigation had been hard on them, even though the NCAA acknowledges the concerns about “aberrant” classes in the African and Afro-American Studies department — which were taken disproportionately but not exclusively by athletes — had ceased in 2011. That was before last year’s seniors arrived on campus, so certainly this team had no players involved.
The difference is, these guys haven’t felt the strain as much.
“I think our success last year helped us out a lot,” Britt said. “Us being able to play together, practice together, go on trips and play games, I feel like was our escape from all of that outside noise. That’s what we enjoy the most: playing together, being around each other.”
Only when Williams overhears a reiteration of the suggestion “he knew” about the questionable courses does he become agitated once again. It may yet up come again this weekend.
The case has become perhaps the most complicated in the history of college athletics. The NCAA has issued three separate notices of allegations, ranging from severe (first NOA) to mild (second) to hell-hath-no-fury-like-an-organization-scorned (the one currently on the table).
North Carolina publicly challenged the NCAA’s jurisdiction in responding to the second list of charges, even though it had dropped many of the harshest counts and nearly all of those involving the men’s basketball program. Many wonder if the school shouldn’t have gone to an infractions committee hearing to deal with that case instead of stretching out the process and ultimately facing a harsher set of accusations —and, of course, arriving at still another Final Four with the case unresolved.
“These two teams have been very therapeutic for me,” Williams said. “They’ve really made me feel good about what I’m doing.”
You can see all of that in Williams’ sunnier demeanor. He has come so far from that afternoon in 2015. It is beginning to feel, though, as if it may be another couple years before this matter is wrapped.