Williams will be the first to admit that playing a small lineup is uncomfortable for him. It’s not his preference. The 10th-year UNC head coach has a long history of adhering to the principles that Dean Smith instilled during his time as an assistant in Chapel Hill, while mixing in his own adjustments along the way.
“Most coaches develop a philosophy, a style that they stick with most of the time,” Williams told reporters at the Sprint Center on Thursday. “If you've done it for 25 years as a head coach, you're probably not going to change very much because ‘you dance with who brung you’ kind of thing.”
That approach has undoubtedly worked. Williams’ 61 NCAA Tournament victories ranks third all-time behind his mentor (65) and Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski (79). His 20 straight NCAA Tournament appearances from 1990-2009 ranks second-best all-time (Smith made 23 consecutive trips) and his 75.3 winning percentage in the Big Dance is third-best all-time behind UCLA legend John Wooden (82.5) and Krzyzewski (76.7).
There’s been little reason for Williams to change throughout his career. Even so, he downplays his coaching success, blushing when his name is even mentioned in the same category as Smith.
A North Carolina victory over Villanova on Friday would be Williams’ 700th career victory in 879 career games. Among active coaches, Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim was the fastest to 700 wins, needing 939 games to reach that total. Smith needed 904. Only Adolph Rupp (836) and Jerry Tarkanian (876) did it faster.
But even with such a remarkable resume, Williams has made two significant midseason changes in the last three years to redirect a downward trajectory.
On Jan. 16, 2011, a mediocre Georgia Tech squad throttled UNC by 20 in Atlanta, dropping the Tar Heels to 12-5. Two days later Williams made the move that his own fan base had been clamoring for – benching point guard Larry Drew for freshman Kendall Marshall.
What the fan base didn’t know at the time is that Williams was balancing a delicate situation. Benching his starter before Marshall was ready could have been detrimental, as the likelihood of Drew withdrawing was a legitimate possibility (Drew left the program two weeks later).
It’s hard to argue with the timing of the move in retrospect. UNC won 17 of its 20 games, earning Williams ACC Coach of the Year honors and his 10th of 11 Elite Eight appearances.
Six weeks ago, Williams made an even bolder move following a 26-point loss at Miami. While the fan base was once again clamoring for change, this time he went in a different direction. Instead of subbing P.J. Hairston in for Dexter Strickland at the off guard spot, he surprised practically everyone by going small by sitting forward Desmond Hubert.
UNC has since won 8 of its 11 games and played arguably its best game of the season in a loss to Miami in Sunday’s ACC Tournament championship game.
Instead of being stubborn to a fault, Williams elected to extend beyond his own comfort zone to give his team a chance to win. After all, that’s what he does – win.
“I think you have to be willing to make changes,” Williams said. “It's not comfortable for me. I like to pick five guys and say, ‘You're my guys, these other two or three are going to play a lot. If you want to change that, you got to beat those guys out.’
“But sometimes you do have to make changes. I'm one of the most stubborn guys you've ever known, but sometimes you need to be a little more intelligent than that.”
Even his players understand the difficulty involved in their head coach making such a drastic change from his norm.
“He traditionally likes to play two big guys, so to make that switch is a big move for him,” Marcus Paige said.
Strickland, the lone scholarship senior in UNC’s rotation, added: “It gives you a sense of how well he understands the game. It’s made us a better team.”
Williams’ coaching ability has been often dismissed as merely a product of superior recruiting, which, of course, is a part of coaching. While there may be more effective in-game coaches across the country, its hard to dispute Williams’ track record of blending and shaping rosters to maximize effectiveness.
“Your job as a coach is to just not let things go,” Williams said. “You have to keep trying things to become more successful.”
That effort continues on Friday night at 7:20pm ET.