Mazurek: Roy Williams has ascended to the top
Marek Mazurek | Wednesday, April 12, 2017
Now that North Carolina’s victory in the NCAA tournament has had a while to settle in, the time feels right to examine one of the more important takeaways from the madness.
During the Final Four games themselves, a lot of the media’s attention focused on North Carolina’s drive to avenge its loss to Villanova in last year’s finals or Gonzaga’s first big break into the national semifinals.
Both storylines are certainly compelling, but now that the dust has settled and the Tar Heels reign as champions, the conversation should shift to North Carolina head coach Roy Williams.
Last season was a heartbreaker for Williams, but he successfully used the memory of Kris Jenkins’ final 3-pointer as fuel, and his team came back to win Williams’ third title in his tenure as head coach of the Tar Heels.
Those three titles put Williams in fourth place behind John Wooden (10), Mike Krzyzewski (5) and Adolph Rupp (4). Jim Calhoun and Bobby Knight each also hold three national titles.
Not far behind on the ladder sit Rick Pitino, Dean Smith and Billy Donovan with two, and John Calipari, Bill Self, Jay Wright, Tom Izzo and Jim Boeheim with one.
I’m not going to say that Williams can match up to the greats of yesteryear like Wooden, Rupp or even Smith. No men’s head coach will ever reach Wooden’s 10 titles, and the game has changed too much to make accurate comparisons between then and now.
But, with a third championship now under his belt, it is increasingly evident that Williams has staked his claim as one of the two-best active men’s head coaches.
Williams is second only to Krzyzewski among active coaches in championships, and he’s made two more Final Fours and one more Elite Eight than his counterpart on Tobacco Road. No other active head coach has made seven Final Fours or 10 Elite Eights.
But numbers alone only tell part of the story. The difference between advancing to any given round of the NCAA tournament is often an unlucky bounce or call or a missed free throw — things not under a coach’s control.
Even looking beyond the numbers, there is a compelling case for Williams’ spot as a top-two head coach.
Lots of people can be good at one thing. At the upper-echelon of collegiate coaching, that one thing is winning with one-and-done players.
I’ll credit Calipari with popularizing the trend at Kentucky, but the practice of recruiting prospects who only intend to stay in college for one year has grown. Now, Duke, Kentucky, Kansas and occasionally North Carolina and UCLA draw such big-name recruits.
Credit should be given to Krzyzewski and Calipari. Consistently being able to land future NBA prospects and have them play together well enough to win in March speaks to their strong recruiting and interpersonal skill set.
But Williams hasn’t been able to rely on NBA-ready players year in and year out. Instead, Williams develops the top-level talent he recruits, and all three of his championship teams were led by upperclassmen with only a few freshman sprinkled in for variety. In fact, the 2017 Tar Heels sported a starting lineup of only juniors and seniors.
I argue that developing players over four years is the more difficult task, and that’s why Williams gets the nod above the Caliparis, Pitinos and Selfs of the world. It’s easier to win when you’re given players who are innately more talented. Getting a bunch of top-10 recruits to play as a team isn’t easy, but it’s easier than turning a group of players into top collegiate athletes and then getting them to play together on top of it.
At the end of the day, prospects like Anthony Davis and Kyrie Irving were going to be top-five draft picks regardless of where they went and who coached them. Successful NBA players like Danny Green, Ty Lawson, Raymond Felton and Wayne Ellington wouldn’t have been picked in the lottery and benefitted from Williams’ tutelage.
It’s true that Self and Calipari are younger than Williams, and that means more chances at titles. But for the time being, Williams has distanced himself from the pack.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.