NCAA Final Four North Carolina Champions

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Luther Head, left, missed a desperation 3-point shot near the end of the game. He led the Illini with 21 points.
SPORTS OF THE TIMES

Matchup Not Simply One of Talent vs. Team

By WILLIAM C. RHODEN

St. Louis

ROY WILLIAMS’s wait is finally over.

After 10 years as Dean Smith’s assistant at North Carolina and 15 seasons as the head coach at Kansas, Williams won his first national championship last night when the Tar Heels defeated top-ranked Illinois, 75-70.

Somewhere between Vermont’s victory over Syracuse and North Carolina’s narrow victory over Villanova, the N.C.A.A. men’s basketball tournament became a referendum on team versus talent. Last night’s game was simply a contest between two great teams with equal talent and equal desire.

This was a masterly game of strategy by two outstanding coaches. Illinois’s Bruce Weber, the coach of the year, had to manage for most of the second half without his best frontline player, James Augustine, who fouled out.

Williams spent most of the evening substituting an array of players to offset Illinois’s perimeter play. But Williams’s most significant move came with 5 minutes 34 seconds to play, when he took Rashad McCants out of the game with his team clinging to a 65-63 lead and Illinois surging.

McCants, North Carolina’s most high-profile player – and in some respects, its most controversial – would pretty much spend the rest of the game as a spectator, watching as his teammates held off a ferocious Illinois comeback.

"It wasn’t tough at all," McCants said. "I was going to do whatever it took to help the team win."

McCants returned to the court with 2:32 to play, just before Luther Head’s 3-pointer for Illinois tied the score at 70-70. McCants attempted a shot, missed and left the game for good with 1:05 left and the Tar Heels leading, 72-20.

Before the tipoff, Williams was asked how he responded to those who characterized the game as a showdown between Illinois, the team, and his North Carolina squad, the talent.

Williams, of course, was irked. In his 17th season as a head coach, he led North Carolina to its first national championship game in 12 years, yet the news media say he is here because of his players’ talent.

"Illinois is extremely talented," Williams said. "Yet the perception is, if we win: ‘Aw, well, gosh, you’re supposed to win. If you can’t win with that group, you ain’t never going to win.’ "

He won with McCants on the bench because North Carolina had enough talent to compensate. But the Tar Heels were enough of a team to pull together, McCants accepting being benched in favor of Jackie Manuel.

"We had to make the best defensive substitution," McCants said as he watched his teammates cut down the nets. "Jackie is one of our best defenders."

So, how did he feel after dreaming of this moment, working for this moment, then sitting on the bench at the end?

"I feel relief," McCants said. "I’m satisfied."

The story line was that North Carolina wins with raw talent, which is associated with street ball, while dutiful Illinois wins with the smart passing and teamwork associated with the "white" ideal.

The story line continued: Weber is the brilliant strategist who forces his players to abandon their playground ways and play team ball; Williams rolls the balls out and lets his players sink or swim on the strength of their talent.

This was the latest twist on what I call loose-ball mentality, which regards talent as a scourge. That athletic talent is not compatible with high intellect is an age-old myth perpetuated by the news media.

What was so silly about the perception that Illinois had the team and North Carolina had the talent was that these players are essentially cut from the same cloth. The Final Four teams, including Michigan State and Louisville, all recruit the same players. And those players all take part in the same summer circuits.

Dee Brown of Illinois and McCants are friends. Each is capable of playing the same wide-open playground style. They tone down that style in an organized setting, in which coaches impose themselves and call plays. But when the pressure is high, as it was last night, every player goes for what he knows.

"With our team, Coach Williams wants us to be basketball players and just play like we’re playing on the playground," McCants said before last night’s game.

If North Carolina had lost to Wisconsin in the Syracuse Regional final, I was ready to bury McCants. I had heard that he was moody, had an attitude problem and had a chip on his shoulder – negative qualities long associated with black athletes. That’s when I decided to look a bit closer.

McCants made several key plays, including a blocked shot to seal the victory over Wisconsin. But last night, in the biggest game of his career, McCants scored 14 first-half points and that was it.

When a player chooses a storied program like North Carolina, he has to take the heat. McCants has not done a good job handling it. He was asked to respond to criticism by past players, who have said that for the previous two seasons, the Tar Heels did not play like a Carolina team.

"I didn’t know they thought that," McCants said. "I really don’t think they think that. But we were confused with the way that we wanted to win. We really didn’t see the bigger picture as far as getting away from the individual accolades and just going out there playing for each other, playing for North Carolina."

Throughout an outstanding N.C.A.A. tournament, there has been a lot of sermonizing about team versus talent. It’s not that simple. In reality, the formula is team plus talent equals championship.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company | Home | Privacy Policy | Search | Corrections | RSS | Help | Back to Top

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