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What was competing against Ol’ Roy Williams like? We asked basketball’s best coaches

C.L. Brown
·5 min read

Villanova men’s basketball coach Jay Wright summed up what it was like playing a North Carolina team coached by Roy Williams: “Highly talented, executed well, defended well and were intelligent and unselfish.”

Here are a few thoughts from coaches who faced Williams and the Tar Heels in the Final Four when the stakes were the highest:

Kansas State coach Bruce Weber

The pressure was all on Roy Williams in his first NCAA championship game appearance as the coach of North Carolina against No. 1 Illinois in 2005. He hadn’t won a title in two previous appearances while at Kansas.

Williams made two moves he generally doesn’t do. He allowed Raymond Felton and Jackie Manuel to play on despite picking up two fouls in the first half. Because of their foul trouble, he also did something else he was reluctant to do: He went zone on defense. Both moves paid off. Felton avoided a third foul and Carolina carried a 40-27 lead into halftime en route to Williams’ first title.

What then-Illinois coach Bruce Weber remembers most about the game was the aftermath as the confetti had fallen. Williams was celebrating with the Heels, and Weber and the Illini started to trickle off the court.

“Roy ran me down and grabbed me and it was a long run for him,” Weber told The News & Observer. “They should be celebrating, too, but for him to run and chase me down and grab me that, for me, left a lasting memory of what he’s about. And I hated last week when he said, ‘I don’t think I’m the right man for the job’ because that’s all horse manure. He’s a great coach, and he’s going to be greatly missed.”

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo

Arguably the best team Williams fielded in his 18 seasons at UNC was the 2008-09 version. It was the most dominant national title run in the history of the program. Carolina won all six of its NCAA tournament games by double digits and had an average margin of 20.1 points. That included the 89-72 win over Michigan State in the title game.

Spartans coach Tom Izzo said that ‘09 installment was the best UNC team under Williams that he faced. And what made it special was what made all of Williams’ best teams tough to beat — their ability to run the fast break.

“There’s no doubt that they were pretty good defensively, their bigs were always good, they always seem to rebound good, which we did, too,” Izzo told The N&O. “But the speed of their fast break and their early offense was as consistent as breathing and never changed. And he ran the same damn stuff, and I couldn’t cover it when he got there and couldn’t cover it when he left.”

Villanova coach Jay Wright

North Carolina, low key, had a great rivalry with Villanova that played out almost exclusively in the NCAA tournament. The Tar Heels beat the Wildcats 67-66 in the Sweet 16 during their 2005 title run. They steamrolled Nova in the 2009 Final Four, 83-69, before winning that title. Villanova and coach Jay Wright got Williams back, of course, in the most dramatic of ways on Kris Jenkins’ buzzer-beater in the 2016 national championship.

“Roy was the most competitive guy I’ve known who could also be a gentleman immediately following competition,” Wright wrote in a text message to The N&O. “He is a friend and someone I look up to.”

Wright said the games against Carolina that the public didn’t see were always just as competitive. The NCAA allows schools to hold closed-scrimmages in lieu of exhibition games. Williams and Wright took advantage of it.

“We felt our preseason scrimmages with Roy’s teams were one of the most valuable things we’ve ever done to prepare for a season,” Wright said. “In 2019, we had a scrimmage at UNC that no one saw, but was one of the most intense games ever.”

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski

Of all the North Carolina-Duke matchups Williams took part in coaching, none may have been bigger than when he took a young team led by freshman Tyler Hansbrough into Cameron Indoor Stadium on senior night in 2006.

The Blue Devils were ranked No. 1 and had already clinched the ACC’s regular-season title. Duke senior guard J.J. Redick was on his way to winning the Wooden Award and being named The Associated Press’ national Player of the Year. Senior forward Shelden Williams was first-team AP All-American and wrapped up his second straight national Defensive Player of the Year award from the National Association of Basketball Coaches.

But accolades and awards meant nothing that night. The No. 15 Tar Heels’ bottled up Redick, holding him to 5-of-21 shooting. Hansbrough, who locked up ACC Freshman of the Year honors that night, finished with 27 points and 10 rebounds.

The Tar Heels’ 83-76 win set the foundation for a class of freshmen that would play in two Final Fours and win the 2009 national championship.

“While we were on opposite sides of college basketball’s greatest rivalry, we both understood how lucky we were to be part of it and always tried to represent it in the way it deserved,” Krzyzewski said in a released statement. “Personally, I will miss competing against him, seeing him at coaches’ meetings and having the opportunity to discuss how to make our game even better. Roy is a great friend, and our sport was very fortunate to have him as long as it did. We have all benefited from his longevity in and commitment to coaching. His legacy is secure as one of the greatest coaches in college basketball history.”