Williams, UNC walking thin line

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Roy Williams doesn't conduct practice with some sort of magic wand dressed as a magician. He's still the same Roy Williams we've seen at Kansas the past 15 years.

The only difference? His golf shirt's shade of blue.

(In case you haven't heard, Williams now sports Carolina Blue.)

Simply showing up in Chapel Hill hasn't suddenly made North Carolina a national contender, either. Or has it?

If his peers are correct, Williams' presence has made UNC at least a preseason top 10 team.

The Tar Heels are ranked No. 10 in the preseason ESPN/USA Today coaches poll. Obviously, Williams' 418 career wins and 80.5 career winning percentage, 14 straight NCAA Tournament appearances, 34 NCAA Tournament wins and four Final Four appearances carries significant weight.

And, it should.

But, remember, this is the same UNC team that showed its vulnerability as soon as Sean May broke his foot and missed all but one of the final 25 games of last season. It's still a team without a backup to point guard Raymond Felton, or true center beyond May.

And, while the Tar Heels boast a stud scoring guard in Rashad McCants -- giving them three of the best players at their respective positions in the country -- there is a dropoff after the Big Three, right?

You better believe it, says Williams.

"This is the thinnest group of players I've ever seen and we don't have the depth at the two most important positions -- point guard and inside," said Williams, 53, sitting behind the desk in the same office once occupied by Matt Doherty, Bill Guthridge and Williams' mentor Dean Smith. "I've never coached a team at Kansas without three point guards and we've got one. I never coached a team at Kansas without three players we thought could be post players and we've got one.

"One of my best friends came up to me recently said, 'You're not a miracle worker.' "

Ah, but that's what he was brought in to be, right?

The photos on Williams' walls are as much about Kansas as they are Carolina. There are plenty of shots of Jayhawk players who are dear to Williams. Just as important, however, was coming back "home" to restore the mystique of a program that has missed the NCAA Tournament the past two years.

Williams and the players know that the expectations are for this team to get back to not only the NCAAs, but competing with Duke for the ACC title and a run at the Final Four, whether those goals prove fair or not. Can a coach mean that much? He may not have to, if UNC can stay healthy.

These are the same Tar Heels who won the Preseason NIT. But David Noel's thumb injury this week (he could be out two months) proves how fragile the Tar Heels are with limited depth, regardless of who is coaching the team. Noel, a sophomore forward, was expected to be one of the first forwards off the bench.

"After Sean May, there is no other big guy who has proven he could be successful at this level," Williams continues in his defense of why the Tar Heel faithful should be patient. "After Raymond Felton we don't have another point guard who has played at this level, let alone anyone who could play the point."

Williams said within the Carolina compound he is telling the players they have a chance to be good if they stay healthy. He reminded the players that no matter how many times they may say they want to be among the elite programs, it's still a group that has lost 36 games over the past two seasons.

"Outside the walls, we can't control it," Williams said. "I'm trying to tone it down a bit and tell people to be more realistic, but it's a runaway train. So, I can't worry about it."

For now, the players are gaining the full trust of the coaching staff, as well as getting to know them on a personal level. But the moment Williams was introduced in April, the players gave him instant respect. That credibility hasn't worn off. He commands their attention throughout practice, during stretching, at any time he speaks.

Junior Jawad Williams said basketball isn't a burden any longer, and back to being fun. He admits Williams' track record speaks for itself. And while most of the current Tar Heels can't recall every title game appearance, they know Williams has taken Kansas to the past two Final Fours a national title game appearance just a few months ago.

It also didn't hurt that Williams is part of the Carolina family and familiar with every player. It certainly helped in any adjustment period when Michael Jordan, Kenny Smith, Brad Daugherty, Antawn Jamison, and one of the players' favorites on campus -- Phil Ford -- told them how much they'll love playing for Williams.

"There are high expectations on him and on us," Felton said. "He's been in the big games. The talent is there but the talent was there last year, too."

Felton is a believer in Williams' offensive system, especially the secondary break. As Williams said, his theories on running a break are to score against mismatches. He wants to beat a team before it can set up its defense. The primary break may be the quick hit when the numbers favor the offense, but Williams looks just as much for the secondary break -- that in-between time while the defense is still getting set, but not totally ready for a halfcourt set.

"We're looking for those gaps before their set," Williams said. "So many teams fear running that it takes them away from the offensive board because they're trying to get back. We'll run and try to run every time. But we don't have that player like Kirk Hinrich running next to Aaron Miles (of Kansas). Rashad McCants and Melvin Scott have to run like Kirk (next to Felton). Aaron loved to pitch the ball ahead at Kansas."

To do what Williams did at Kansas, Felton has to stay on the floor, although he's trying to help Scott and Jackie Manuel get used to handling the basketball whenever he can in practice. And, more than anything, May has to be healthy. He had moments when he could look dominant. He maximized his minutes with 11.4 points, 8.1 boards and a team-high 17 steals through the first 10 games before suffering the stress fracture against Iona on Dec. 27. He returned to play against Duke in the ACC tournament, scoring four points in limited action.

But Carolina Nation will have to get used to May increasing their collective blood pressure. He got kicked in the shin during the Blue and White game Sunday and went down to a collective gasp among the fans at the Smith Center.

"Sean should get an Oscar for that one," Jawad Williams said. "I didn't think it was that serious."

Felton said it was scary and caused a few flashbacks for fans. But May said fans need to be stop being so paranoid when it comes to his health.

"I can't predict what is going to happen," May said. "Sometime during the season, I'm sure I'll go down with some small injury. It might seem serious at the time, but hopefully it won't be. I like that people are concerned, but they shouldn't be overly concerned."

(Oh, by the way, May also aggravated a calf muscle in practice. Just a little something for UNC fans to chew on.)

"But I have to go out and play," said May, who isn't going to be too tentative, but is conscious of not doing something stupid in practice. "There was a time earlier this summer when I was hesitant. It's in the back of my mind, but I can't worry about it."

Jawad Williams isn't a post player but will have to play some inside now that Noel is gone until 2004. Noel was probably the team's best dunker and finisher on the break as a big guard/small forward. Byron Sanders is probably the best suited to getting busy in the post after he averaged nearly three boards a game last season. But the Tar Heels don't expect much out of oft-injured big man Damion Grant. And they may have to play Terry's high school teammate 6-8 freshman Justin Bohlander more than they thought when he was added to the roster.

"We can't help that people put these expectations on us and coach," May said. "We haven't proven anything yet. We're not a top 10 team. We have done nothing to get that label.

"But the media gave us that label and now we've got to live up to it. We didn't prove anything last year. The only thing I can think of is that I'm healthy now and coach Williams is here with his track record. We're all more mature. We didn't ask to be labeled a top 10 team but we've got it now."

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.