Butch Davis turned a tenuous Tuesday into a late gold rush in his first recruiting class as UNC’s new football coach, and six hours later on Wednesday Roy Williams won an almost un-winnable game in the cauldron known as Cameron Indoor Stadium.
On the first common day that both posted results, the kingpins proved they are worth every cent the Tar Heels are paying them.
In only months on the job, Davis turned a tainted brand into a big dog that could come back from losing players to Clemson and South Carolina one day to sign better players away from even bigger schools the next. Marvin Austin, Dwight Jones and Greg Little helped the lightly regarded Tar Heels serve new notice from Knoxville to South Bend.
The guy has an unmistakable presence around seasoned adults, so you can imagine what an impression he makes on youngsters who want to play college football. Not quite as slick, and thus maybe more credible, let’s call him Mack Brown lite. Where Brown made his bones at Carolina by dominating in-state recruiting, Davis looks like he’ll be Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside, judging from the geography of his first class.
The football office fax machine was finally quiet, all the brand new coaches able to enjoy a night off for the first time in months. Some of them may have even tuned into the basketball game being played eight miles away.
The euphoria at Kenan Football Center would have, alone, made Wednesday Anything Can Happen Day. Even though a week ago, the basketball Tar Heels’ date at Duke looked less daunting, a win there now seemed tougher as the facts unfolded over the last seven days.
The Blue Devils lost back-to-back games for only the fourth time in the last nine years. Backed into such a bunker, they will always take on the demeanor of their Army captain coach, Mike Krzyzewski, who benches starters, sends subs out to make statements and generally calls for one of his favorite military expressions – draw a line in the sand.
Meanwhile, last Saturday, Carolina left N.C. State with a stunning loss that raised new questions about its youth, its heart and its revolving door lineup. The second-to-last place you want to go under such circumstances is Duke; the last place you want to go is Duke with the Blue Devils, themselves, smarting up a storm.
Early Wednesday, word filtered across enemy lines about a lineup stunt like after Duke lost two straight games in 2005. Remember that night against Wake Forest, when Captain K started two walk-ons named Patrick, and one of them smacked Chris Paul in the opening moments to signal the Blue Devils would not lose three in a row? And they didn’t, fighting off the fifth-ranked Deacons by 10 points.
This time, Krzyzewskiville was abuzz over its namesake sitting starters Josh McRoberts and DeMarcus Nelson in favor of freshman Brian Zoubek and utility man David McClure. Basically, a gawk and four guards to challenge the regulars into the kind of effort Duke had come to expect over the last 20 years. Only Duke would dare such a move, and only Duke could pull it off.
Angered by charges they were timid to take it to the hole, the Blue Devils sliced and diced the harried Heels to lead by as many as 10 points in the first half. They knocked down two more treys than Carolina, pulled down two more rebounds and made seven more free throws in a first half that found UNC lucky to be behind by only five points.
Williams kept his club in the locker room until two minutes before the second half was to begin, and in short order made his strategy clear. Guards Wes Miller and Bobby Frasor, a little slower and a lot steadier on defense, who barely played in the first half, would keep the Dukies in front of them and begin the wearing down process. Roy also matched their smaller lineup with Reyshawn Terry and Danny Green at power forward to further fatigue the hosts, who had Cameron crazy for most of the evening thus far.
Thus, it became a 20-minute marathon, literally a fight to the finish, with Williams counting on his depth to tire the thinner Devils and then his fleeter freshmen to blow by them and over them at just the right moment. It was the work of an experienced coach with the courage to work the clock and the confidence that, win or lose, it was the right thing to do on such a night.
Like scaling Everest one ledge at a time, Carolina crept back into the game and finally forged a tie with just under 10 minutes to play, fell behind again by four but then made the last push against the foul-plagued home team on the wingspan and speed of freshmen Brandan Wright and Ty Lawson, and finally unleashing Tyler Hansbrough -- who had no rebounds, no free throws and only four points in the first half.
It was vintage coaching and extra effort that won the race in the home stretch, giving Carolina a second straight national television win in Cameron that reaffirms equal footing with the Duke dynasty while answering some of those aforementioned questions and positioning the Tar Heels for another high seed in the NCAA Tournament.
All the results were in shortly before midnight, the perfect end to the first day that Butch and Big Dance made beautiful music together. It won’t be the last, for sure.
Art Chansky, a veteran journalist on the UNC beat, authored BLUE BLOOD - Duke-Carolina: Inside the Most Storied Rivalry in College Hoops and is the Associate General Manager at Tar Heel Sports Marketing.