Williams says figuring out this team might be like learning what makes a ‘fifth wife tick’

By R.L. Bynum

Roy Williams has been happily married for decades, but guesses that starting a fifth marriage would be about as challenging as predicting whether his young North Carolina players will either be pumped up for a game or perform well.

“Maybe if you’ve seen a guy who’s been married five times, ask him what makes his fifth wife tick,” Williams said Friday. “I’m in the same spot because I don’t know what these guys are. Wicked Wanda knows me and I know her. Fifth wife? I wouldn’t know and seven freshmen I still don’t know.”

“Wicked Wanda” would be his wife of 47 years and the seven freshmen would be the group that has had him guessing most of the season. That would include Wednesday night when the Tar Heels (14–8, 8–5 ACC)  lost 83–70 at home to Marquette.

Williams didn’t see that coming.

Methods that have worked for years haven’t always been successful with this team and it leaves him frustrated, not knowing what to expect, including when league-leading No. 11 Florida State (14–3, 10–2) comes to the Smith Center for a 4 p.m. game on Saturday (ESPN).

“It’s a very uncomfortable feeling, that’s what it is,” Williams said. “Gosh, this is 33 years and it’s probably surprised me with their makeup, their reactions to my sayings and reactions to the plan, reactions to the toughness. It’s been different from anything that I’ve ever coached. It sounds like an excuse and that’s not what I’m intending it to be. I’m just trying to find a reason. But the youthfulness of this club is just something that is really unusual.”

Once Williams heard that there were 25 teams in the country with a younger roster than his Tar Heels team, he wondered how all of those coaches are dealing with that inexperience and not knowing what you’ll get from game to game.

One example is Caleb Love. He was sensational in collecting 25 points, four 3-pointers and seven assists in UNC’s 91–87 win at Duke on Feb. 6. In the four games since then, he has 20 points and one 3-pointer. He did have nine assists against Northeastern and seven against Marquette.

No. 11 Florida State (14–3, 10–2 ACC) at North Carolina (14–8, 8–5)
4 p.m., ESPN
First meeting at Tallahassee, Fla., on Jan. 16: Seminoles won 82–74
TV announcers: Doug Sherman and Cory Alexander
Referees: Ted Valentine, Bill Covington Jr. and Pat Driscoll.

Williams can’t explain it.

“No idea,” he said. “I mean, it’s a new world. That’s all I’m telling you.”

Predicting the team’s mentality before the game has been just as baffling for Williams. He had no clue from his team’s behaviour before the game that his team would play so poorly against Marquette. He asked his assistant coaches what they saw from the team’s demeanor before the game.

“We just laugh about it because we don’t know if they’re being fired up or if I’m getting them fired up or if I’m putting it wrong because they just sort of look at me with a blank stare,” Williams said. “I think that’s youthfulness. We’ve got to get through that because we got a big-time game tomorrow and we did some good things down there.”

The difference is that when UNC lost 82–75 at Florida State on Jan. 16, point guard Scottie Barnes didn’t play and the 6-8 freshman will be in the lineup on Saturday. Williams knows that for sure but he’s not that sure which UNC team will show up.

Williams says that he’s had three kinds of teams over the years. For some, he’s known when they’re going to play well and others give indications when he should be concerned. This season’s team falls into a third category.

“I’ve had got teams that I’ve walked up to the locker room and said I have no idea what their thought process is,” said Williams, who puts this year’s team in that category. “It’s that third choice almost every single night.”

There are many ways to get Williams upset. But, at the top of the list would be for him to call a play during a timeout and then watch his team run a different play. That happened against Marquette.

Williams didn’t say how he got his message across, but he suggested that the team received it.

“The only thing I know is I don’t believe we’ll see that happen again in my lifetime. That’s one way to put it,” Williams said. “And I believe in total freedom, but don’t go out there thinking that you’ve watched six games like Steve Robinson did and think you know what’s best to run at that particular time. 

“If we’re in freelance, guys get total freedom,” Williams said. “That’s the reason we call it freelance. They can dribble, handoff, they can screen. I mean, it’s freelance. But if I call a set play, there’s a reason. And so, let’s just put it that way: I don’t think that we’ll see that happen anymore.” 

What will we see Saturday afternoon with a limited number of fans in the Smith Center? Williams probably is guessing as much as any fan.

UNC game-by-game results

UNC individual statistics

Pool photo by Robert Willett

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