Aside from the obvious pain in his left shoulder – worsened after attempting to demolish a "fly on the chair" following another second-half mental blunder by his team - the reality is that 13 games and 49 days into this season, UNC isn’t a whole lot better than it was in the opener on Nov. 9.
There are positives: Dexter Strickland’s growth; Larry Drew isn’t exactly the disaster many observers forecasted; Ed Davis is posting double-doubles; and Deon Thompson is grabbing more offensive rebounds than at any previous time at UNC.
But really, after that, what can Williams be happy about?
“At times we really have gotten better,” the coach said. “At times we’ve played really good basketball, but we haven’t come together as a team. It’s frustrating because I am a guy that wants to give kids confidence. But, if we’re having to repeat the same thing over and over it’s hard to give confidence.”
That is the problem, and it seems like every game is very much a replay of the previous one: A lengthy ugly stretch brings the Heels to a halt and gives a less talented team – like Rutgers – confidence it can hang with the fabled baby blue.
The Scarlet Knights turned a 17-point deficit with 12 minutes left into a four-point margin with two minutes remaining, giving a scare to the home fans. Much of this was Rutgers making plays, but it was also Carolina not making plays during a period the program has historically been at its best.
The Heels pulled away last week for a rout against Marshall, but not so against FIU, Valpo, Gardner-Webb, and now Rutgers, which usually settles at or near the bottom of the Big East.
So bad was UNC’s performance in intangibles that Williams used a precious late-game timeout just to remind the players of who they were supposed to be guarding.
“I jumped on their case,” he said. “Dexter was at the free throw line and I turned to Sean Hull the referee and I said, ‘If the second one goes in, I want a timeout’ because I wanted to make sure everyone knew who they were guarding.
“I said, my gosh, this is the 12th, 13th game of the year – 13th game – I said they should be able to do that. We went down the court and two guys were guarding the same person. And that means – and I am really good at math – if two guys are guarding one guy that means that somebody on the other team has nobody guarding them.”
No wonder he’s ticked. But this wasn’t just a one-night thing; it’s really been a season-long issue. Thompson says the players get it right in practice, but when the “lights come on some guys aren’t doing it.”
“We just have to start doing what we do in practice in the games,” he said. “We do things right in practice, but in games we just mess up.”
This is why Williams hasn’t yet whittled down his rotation and appears to be holding on-going auditions. The problem, however, is they are auditioning the same lines over and over, and at some point a player either gets it or he doesn’t.
Williams’s frustration is growing increasingly obvious, and on this night he appeared to exercise a short trigger, yanking players one-by-one for mental mistakes. Maybe the fear of being pulled affected some of them. It sure seemed that way.
“Yeah, he was pretty trigger-happy with guys, and I don’t think that’s good for guys when you do that,” Thompson said. “Because, that makes guys even tighter – when you do one thing (wrong) you think coach is going to yank you right out. I don’t think that is good for guys, but Coach is a Hall of Fame coach and he definitely knows what he’s doing.”
Williams always finds something to get bellyache about, even when the Heels win by 40. But he’s legitimately concerned, and his team knows it.
“We’re still making those same mistakes we made in that first game,” Thompson said. “Individuals have gotten better, but together defensively, offensively I think we’re the same.”