Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Tangled Up In Blue

The basketball programs at North Carolina and Kansas share a lot of history. Legendary Tar Heels coach Dean Smith played for the Jayhawks under Phog Allen. Larry Brown was a scrappy point guard at UNC, then led Kansas to a national title as coach in 1988. There were memorable NCAA tournament games between the teams in 1957, 1991 and 1993.

Then there’s the matter of Roy Williams and Matt Doherty. They are inextricably linked in hoops history. As a Smith assistant, Williams recruited Doherty to become a key role player for the Tar Heels in the early 1980s. Williams succeeded Brown as Kansas coach and hired Doherty as an assistant from 1993-’99. After turning down the chance to be UNC’s coach upon Bill Guthridge’s retirement in 2000, Williams trumpeted for Doherty to get the job.

Doherty’s saga at UNC is well-trod territory: AP coach of the year for 2000-’01 and then a disastrous 8-20 season in 2001-’02. But Doherty seemed to be righting the ship in 2002-’03, bringing in a stellar recruiting class highlighted by Rashad McCants, Sean May and Raymond Felton.

One of Doherty’s final memorable moments at UNC came on Nov. 27, 2002, when the young Tar Heels shocked Williams’ second-ranked Jayhawks, 67-56, in the semifinals of the Preseason NIT at Madison Square Garden. It is the only time the coaches have squared off against each other.

It’s a little mind-bending to watch the game with the benefit of hindsight, knowing that Williams would be on the UNC sideline the next season. Especially since Doherty out-coached his mentor in this game. The Tar Heels exploited the Jayhawks’ overplaying defense, with Doherty spreading his players high, almost to the three-point line. That left plenty of room for backdoor cuts and no backside help defensively from Kansas. McCants was the primary beneficiary of the strategy, getting 12 points on 6-for-8 shooting in the first half as UNC raced out to a surprising 38-29 lead.

Doherty didn’t have the look of an embattled coach. The Tar Heels were clearly still buying what Doherty was selling. The coach’s enthusiasm hadn’t dampened, he charged right into a scrum of players to share in the celebration after McCants dove on the floor for a loose ball and called a timeout.

The Tar Heels also were stellar on defense, shutting down Kansas stars Kirk Hinrich and Nick Collison. UNC forced 21 turnovers, surprising because Doherty’s tenure with the Tar Heels — as anyone who watched Adam Boone or Brian Morrison run the point could attest — was marred by the team’s own sloppy play. UNC dominated the second half, pushing the lead to 21 points. McCants finished with 25 points and Jawad Williams added 15. Melvin Scott had five steals off the bench.

It was plain to see the Tar Heels had superior talent. But the season deteriorated in short order. May was lost for the season in December after hurting his foot in a shocking loss to Iona. Doherty’s trademark enthusiasm began to grate on his young stars, who started tuning the coach out while playing out the string of a 19-16 season that ended in the NIT.

Doherty was forced out and Williams became the obvious replacement, even as he was leading Kansas to the NCAA championship game against Syracuse. Williams no doubt struggled with the decision, but it’s easy to see Ol’ Roy thinking back to this game and imagining coaching May, McCants and Felton. There was a greater upside than the players Kansas had returning, including Aaron Miles and Wayne Simien.

Of course, Williams took the job and tidied up the situation, leading the players that Doherty recruited to a national championship in 2005, further entwining their legacies.

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