NEW YORK — Maybe you wonder why Roy Williams, who has taken eight teams to Final Fours and won two NCAA titles, isn’t usually ranked among the sport’s leading strategists. The latest installment of basketball’s greatest rivalry? The careening ACC semifinal between North Carolina and Duke here Friday night? A game like this is why.
We stipulate that these teams might well be the nation’s two best. We also stipulate that, had Duke had all its players and its coach available for the entire season, they’d be ranked No. 1 in the land, as opposed to being a No. 5 seed in this tournament. But Carolina has been the better team over the past four months, and for 27 minutes Friday it was the superior side by a lot.
“They were playing a lot better than us than the score indicated,” Mike Krzyzewski said. “It was almost a third-round knockout.”
Carolina led by seven at the half, having outscored Duke by eight baskets and taken eight more rebounds. With 13:40 remaining, the Tar Heels led 61-48. Over the next two minutes and 44 seconds, they were outscored 13-2. Roy Williams waited until his team’s lead had been reduced to 63-61 before calling timeout.
Williams’ mentor, the sainted Dean Smith, believed in saving his timeouts. So does Ol’ Roy. I get that: A philosophy is a nice thing to have — except when it gets in the way of holding off a hated rival that lives only eight miles from Chapel Hill.
Ahead by 13, Carolina lost by 93-83. That’s a 23-point turnaround on a neutral floor. I don’t care how good Duke is — and Duke is very good — but a team of the Heels’ caliber should never fall apart to this extent.
Credit Williams for acknowledging the obvious in his opening remarks afterward. “It was a big-time game for a while, and then it got so it was not a big-time game. I think the most disciplined, the best-coached team, the most focused team is the one that won the game tonight. I didn’t do as good a job as Mike did.”
Well, no. He didn’t. Toward that end, the guy whose fingers are typing this asked Williams — not to be impolite or anything — if he thought he’d missed a timeout. Here was the response:
“It’s not impolite. I’ve had people say I don’t call timeouts my whole life, but we’ve won some games, and it’s the way we do it. I always think that that’s what we practice for. We practice every day being able to play without me calling them over to say ‘I love you’ and singing ‘Kumbaya’ and all that BS … Somebody could say that, but that’s the way I’ve coached my whole life.”
Then: “I’m dumb enough to think, if I die and I have more timeouts left than anybody, I’ll get something from it.”
Then: “Kids have to be able to handle adversity, and that’s the reason we practice. We’ve had some great comebacks when I’ve had timeouts left at the end. I’ve seen some games on TV yet this year when games were lost when coaches wished they had a timeout. I don’t ever want to coach us out of a game. But that is the way we practice. We do it all the time. I’m too dumb, too stubborn, whatever. I’m not going to change after 29 years. I didn’t let the guy get wide open for a 3-point shot. What am I going to do?”
Er … maybe take a cue from the man on the other bench? The first basket of Duke’s roaring comeback came on Jayson Tatum’s driving dunk, after which Krzyzewski did the darnedest thing: He called timeout. Some coaches — Roy Wiliams, to name one — are hesitant to call timeout when their team is blowing a lead. Krzyzewski burned one when his team had just begun to cut into one.
Why? Because he’s Mike Krzyzewski, maybe the best there ever was. He called that timeout, he said, “just to get rested, (to say) ‘Let’s go. Let’s try to make a charge now.’ ”
As Coach K averred after Thursday’s impassioned victory over Louisville, energy builds energy. The Blue Devils were excited after Tatum’s dunk, more excited when they re-took the floor. Soon came what Krzyzewski deemed “the play of the game.”
The villain Grayson Allen — he had 18 points this night and was solely responsible for the game being semi-close at halftime — chased down a long rebound off a Tatum miss, fed Luke Kennard in the corner and saw Kennard drain a 3-pointer while getting fouled. He made the free throw. Nearly dead, Duke was in the ascendancy.
Carolina, which once seemed apt to win by 20, would dissolve in puddle of bad shots and worse body language. Said Williams: “We were not tough enough. Begging the officials every time a call’s made — you’re throwing up your hands. Those are disgusting things to me. You can’t always blame somebody else in life. You’ve got to do a better job. I’ve got to do a better job with my team.”
(Also debatable was Williams’ refusal to bring back Joel Berry, who’d been whistled for his fourth foul with 15:04 to play, until the 4:58 mark. By then Carolina was seven points in arrears and nearly done.)
At the risk of becoming a bore, this same reporter asked Krzyzewski about his, er, philosophy regarding timeouts. The answer should be laminated and framed and displayed in every coach’s office: “Good decision or bad decision, I’m not afraid to make a decision. And I make my decision knowing my guys … I know these guys. I trust them.”
Then: “There isn’t like this recipe for how you coach a game, where you should take them out. There is not a recipe. You determine based on your team what you’re going to do, and I’ve always done that, and then you pay the price. The price has been good. So it’s not perfect, but what the hell.”
Then, to a followup from another reporter: “Games are not won always at the end. They’re won at certain periods of time, and if you can win those periods of time by your feel, that’s what I try to do. Again, I may not feel the right thing tomorrow night, but I’m going to trust what I feel … It’s fun for me doing it that way. It never gets old because they’re always — it’s always evolving.”
Then, smiling a sly smile: “Is that philosophical enough? I don’t think I used a three-syllable word or anything.”
Maybe Carolina would have lost by the same 10 points had Williams spent all his timeouts inside the fateful 2:44, but we’ll never know. What we do know is that the same sin would never have been committed by Krzyzewski. Games are not always won at the end. Some games are lost when one team makes its move and the other freezes. This was such a game.
It’s entirely possible that the Heels will win the 2017 NCAA title. They’re that good. Still, the feeling persists that these Heels might again fall short, as so many of Williams’ teams at both Kansas and Carolina have done. It would be wildly incorrect to say that he’s a bad coach: His teams always play at the blurry-fast tempo he wants, and they’re always unselfish and usually they’re resourceful. And then, in March or April, comes that moment when they’re not.
Comes that moment when they look to the bench seeking direction, and what they see is Roy Williams standing there, saving his timeouts.