UNC vs. Kentucky
Saturday, Dec. 14
5:15 p.m., ESPN
Chapel Hill

Is Roy Williams finished? Carolina fans might have asked that question after their team recently lost a pair of games to unranked teams.

In each loss, one at home, a single struggle essentially cost them the game. They held UAB-Birmingham to just 31 percent shooting but were badly (and uncharacteristically) outrebounded. Against Belmont, whom they otherwise mostly outplayed statistically, UNC missed a staggering 26 of 48 free throws. They lost by three points.

Strangely, their head coach did not harp on these glaring deficiencies.

The problem, said Roy Williams, was Roy Williams.

“I did a poor job coaching,” he told the media after the Belmont defeat. The game ended after a botched final possession in which Williams chose not to call a resetting timeout.

“It’s on me,” he said in the press conference, which, like all of them, is archived online. “I didn’t do the job down the stretch.”

A bit later: “I love those kids in my locker room, and their coach let them down today.”

Asked about the Tar Heels’ poor free throw shooting, Williams said his players had made 80 percent of them in practice and quickly blamed himself again: “I still let my team down in the end.”

Two weeks later, Carolina lost at UAB-Birmingham and fell out of the top 25. Williams opened his post-game conference by saying that Blazers coach Jerod Haase, a Williams protégé, “got his team to compete a heck of a lot harder today than I got my team to compete.” This suggested that the Tar Heels’ poor focus, not execution, cost them the game.

“They seemed to get every loose ball,” Williams said, “so many second-shot opportunities.” His five-minute mea culpa was full of downcast pauses, set off by some rueful praise of the student who outcoached his master.

Try to imagine another Hall of Fame men’s college basketball coach saying these things. Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, to use the obvious comparison, virtually never points the finger at himself. Publicly, he’ll blame his team, including individual players (or reporters for asking about them). He is a model of steely constancy and infallibility, a mastermind and master manipulator who never reveals cracks in the armor, never loses control, never relents. That’s why he’s the winningest coach in the history of his sport.

Meanwhile, here was Williams admitting failure at two of a coach’s most important jobs: motivating young players to compete, and rising to the occasion under late-game pressure. Had Williams lost the fire and iron that coaches need? Did he see retirement coming, even though he’s under contract through 2018?

Not so fast. Three days after the UAB-Birmingham loss, Carolina upset No. 1 Michigan State, making the Spartans look weak and bumbling on their home court in East Lansing. It was the Tar Heels’ second road defeat of a top-5 team this season (they also beat then-No. 3 Louisville). “‘Want to’ is something that’s been extremely important to me,” Williams said after the Michigan State game.

There are different ways to want to. Krzyzewski tries hard to win the early-season invitational tournaments and quickly establish his team’s top-dog bona fides early. Watching him two seasons ago, he reminded me of Prospero, the wizard of Shakespeare’s Tempest.

But Williams works his own magic, in the form of misdirection: Pay attention to the man behind the curtain. He seldom refers to his team’s youth, or to the missing P. J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald, Carolina’s only reliable three-point shootersboth of whom remain suspended for vague, tiresome “eligibility” issues.

Hairston and McDonald’s absence has required a radical overhaul, still in progress, of Carolina’s offensive schema. (The Tar Heels barely and badly shoot three-pointers now: a combined 5-30 against Belmont, UAB-Birmingham and Michigan State.)

Williams may at times appear underprepared or too casual. Sometimes he is. Remember Carolina’s first-half face-plant against Kansas in the 2008 Final Four, or their entire disastrous 2010 season? But his shambolic Dadgum Roy act conceals sly, unassuming intelligence and its uncommon coaching tool: patience. He’s willing to lose a few games early, to let the fog of doubt envelop his team and then watch it clear out later. His 2009 juggernautTy Lawson, Tyler Hansbrough, et al.lost its first two conference games, to the loud consternation of its fans, before winning the regular-season title and storming to the NCAA championship.

Kentucky comes to Chapel Hill Saturday, boasting the No. 3 ranking that Carolina knocked out of Louisville’s hands last month. Will the real Tar Heels please stand up? The thing is, whether they beat the Wildcats or lose by 30, those are the real Tar Heels. (If they lose to Northern Kentucky two weeks later, though, panic.) They’re flawed, unfinished and fickle, maddeningly fun and frustrating to watch, and capable of greatness or goofs, just like their coach.

Call him Dadgumshoe: quietly, slowly collecting evidence and clues to his team, all the while inviting a beating. Often, we pause between punches to discover he’s already solved Carolina’s case.