The final TV timeout has come and gone, and North Carolina is so far in front of Davidson you would need a wide-angle lens to get them into the same picture. Tar Heels point guard Raymond Felton has been running all night, usually with a basketball bouncing from his right hand. When he seizes control of the ball once more, chasing down a rebound in front of the opposing bench and with 90 feet between himself and the goal, it would seem like a good time for him to take his time. Except now he’s playing for Roy Williams, who says, “I don’t ever want to walk it up.”
Felton has heard that so often that the message informs his instinct. So Felton sprints. He crouches low with his dribble, darting through traffic like a speeding Maserati until he arrives in the lane and drops a pass to teammate Jawad Williams for a two-fisted jam. It’s just another basket on the way to 91-68, only it’s the most important one the Tar Heels will score this night.
This one is proof: They are starting to believe.
“That’s how he wants us to play, and that’s how we’re going to play,” Felton says. “I’m not saying we’re trying to push it down somebody’s throat, embarrass anybody. We weren’t trying to embarrass Davidson — that’s just the way we play. We’re focusing on the game we’re playing, but we’re also preparing for other games.”
“Carolina break” back to Carolina, only now it’s the “Kansas break” because he made it so. There is one deadly sin for these Tar Heels: sloth. Everybody must run. Everybody must be in shape to run. If the opponent misses a shot, which Davidson did 30 times in 40 minutes, everybody runs to create a fast break for the Tar Heels. If the opponent scores, the Heels snatch the ball out of the net and run to wipe away the memory of those points.
If they can gain a numerical advantage and score on a traditional break, they’ll take that. If they can’t, they’ll continue pushing with their secondary break, straining to catch opponents relaxing or searching for their defensive matchups. Carolina has the ideal players to make this work. Center Sean May is in excellent condition, down 15 pounds and dashing upcourt like he’s Michael Johnson. Wing Rashad McCants can run to the low post, flare to the wing for a 3-pointer or finish breaks with acrobatic dunks. Most important is Felton, who has every physical gift a point guard could want, except maybe size (he’s 6-foot), plus a demeanor that declares he will keep running until his teammates see no choice but to keep up.
Fans have seen these Tar Heels play before, but never at this pace. Williams learned the mechanics of the break as an assistant to Dean Smith, the coaching legend whose name is on North Carolina’s home arena and whose two NCAA championship banners hang from its ceiling. After moving on to become head coach at Kansas, though, Williams gradually discovered he could enhance the break by cranking up its volume. In his final three seasons with the Jayhawks, they averaged 86.1 points per game and topped the 90-point mark 43 times in 107 games. The Tar Heels did it 15 times in that same period.
“Kids think the running game is fun, but it’s really hard,” Williams says. “What you have to do is continually pound it into their heads that you’ve got to have it every possession. Now, they’re trying. But in the Old Dominion game, at the 12-minute mark in the second half, guys kept looking at the clock thinking, ‘God almighty, we’ve got all this game left?’ They were ready for it to be over with. So it’s going to take an effort over a long period of time.”
From the moment he accepted the North Carolina job, Roy Williams began “the busiest six months of my life.” There was the move, never an easy process. He had committed to assist the U.S. Olympic team in its qualifying tournament and was gone most of August. He recruited with an evangelistic fervor rarely seen among head coaches of his stature.
Despite all that, Williams seems relaxed. He seems at home. It’s three weeks before Carolina plays a real game, and Williams has a ton to do. But here he sits, patiently explaining the concept of the secondary break.
“I think there’s a phase in there between when you have the team outnumbered to where you start running your set offense,” Williams says. “That’s what the secondary break is. While the defense is thinking, ‘OK, they didn’t get a layup against us, we got back, we did a nice job’ — well, we’re still trying to attack them when they’re patting themselves on the back. While they’re trying to find out, ‘Where’s my man?’ — we’re still attacking.”
That secondary phase can be as simple as Felton pushing past defenders until he clears himself for a layup. It can be more involved, with a standard set of screens and ball movements that are predictable for opponents but a pain to defend. Anyone who has watched North Carolina or Kansas play has, perhaps a million times, seen the point guard carry the ball to one wing, a big man stop at the top of the key and reverse the ball to the opposite wing and then, as a teammate sets a back screen near the foul line, dive to the block and open himself for a post feed.
“That was the thing about it,” says Texas A&M coach Melvin Watkins, who competed against Williams’ Kansas teams in the Big 12. “You knew it, your players knew it, but how do you stop it?”
The secondary break is dangerous only if the players understand and are committed to it. “The first week of practice, the ball was flying everywhere,” May says. “There were turnovers every other play.” The coaches timed how quickly the big men, May and Jawad Williams, pulled the ball out of the net and inbounded to start the offense. But as the process continued, the accent on speed became less forced. Perhaps the greatest obstacle to the success of the break is not a lack of speed or commitment but a lack of discipline. As Roy Williams watched Felton run the offense in a late October practice, he detected a lack of urgency but wanted to be sure that was not replaced by recklessness. “It’s not ‘under control,’ ” Williams tells his point guard. “It’s ‘as fast as you can, under control.’ ”
Opponents are forced to adjust to that tempo. About 30 hours before Davidson played Carolina, the Wildcats hit the practice floor. As soon as they finished stretching and were loose, they moved on to the first item on that day’s agenda: coping with the secondary break.
“If you don’t stop that, you’re going to be constantly on your heels,” says Wildcats coach Bob McKillop. “When you get a team on their heels, then they don’t attack the offensive glass. They start shooting quick shots to try to make up for the score at the other end. (Williams) has got you with this remote-control offense, because the attack is so powerful.”
The adjustment to Williams’ approach has been eased because the Carolina players are following the same basic structure as when Matt Doherty coached them. Doherty worked for Williams at Kansas, who coached with Smith at North Carolina when Doherty played there. The Heels are not suddenly being taught in a foreign language.
The change also has been less turbulent because the players have no other choice. “He’s been able to place an emphasis on ‘My way or the highway,’ ” McKillop says. “Matt maybe didn’t have that luxury. He was in a constant battle to define his identity as the head coach of North Carolina. With Roy, that is not a concern.”
InsertArt(2083966)Mostly, it has worked because Williams has Felton. In his first two games, Felton averaged just 8.0 points, down five from his freshman season, and committed six turnovers. Still, he was brilliant.
He had 19 assists and the other Carolina regulars shot 67.4 percent from the field, including Jawad Williams’ 15-of-17 start. Against Davidson, Felton aggressively sought outlet passes and accelerated into the open court. The Heels were so successful at generating break opportunities that they almost never had to call a set play.
Although Williams coached five point guards at Kansas who went on to the NBA — Kevin Pritchard, Adonis Jordan, Jacque Vaughn, Ryan Robertson and Kirk Hinrich — none was as gifted at the position as Felton. He was not among the more militant Tar Heels in the near-coup that brought down Doherty, but Felton clearly has benefited from the change in coaches. The chance to show off his ability to push the ball and make quick, smart decisions only will enhance his college experience and professional prospects. Williams entrusts his point guards with a high level of responsibility.
“He brought a lot of great things to us,” Felton says. “He brought a lot of intensity, the drive to win, a lot of fire into our eyes.
“The fast-paced offense is something we’ve got to get used to, doing it for 40 minutes. I think every player wants to run. It’s just a matter of just doing it. It’s not as easy as it looks. You get out there and you run and you run and you run. And you run some more.”
It doesn’t matter how the game is going. When the ball is in Tar Heel hands, it must be advanced rapidly toward the goal. This is
Roy Williams’ transition game. Success is coming fast.
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