Roy Williams chose his career path in tenth grade, impressed by the way his basketball coach at Asheville’s T.C. Roberson High helped players feel good about themselves. So, despite coming from a financially strapped family supported by a divorced mother working several jobs, Williams had the audacity to turn down eight scholarship offers, including an academic free ride to Georgia Tech. Instead the young man patched together grants, loans and wages from odd jobs in order to attend the University of North Carolina, where he could learn coaching from a master, Dean Smith.

“I remember going in and telling my high school math teacher that I was not going to take the engineering scholarship,” Williams recalled. “She was really disappointed. She’s the one that sat in the class that day and told all the girls that they shouldn’t mess with me because one of these days I was going to be coming to her house to borrow a loaf of bread. My wife was sitting in the class. Luckily she didn’t pay any attention to it.”

Thirty-five years later, Williams has more than enough bread to gag the penny-pinched UNC faculty, potentially pulling in $2.5 million annually as head coach at North Carolina. He’s also still married to that girl from high school math class. “Wanda and I have been married 29 years,” Williams said last April at the press conference announcing his hiring. “It will be 30 years this summer. And I jokingly say, but truthfully mean it, I’ve had the same putter since I was 18 years old. If I get something I like, I usually stick with it. It’s hard for me to leave and do something else.”

Williams had to pry himself loose from Chapel Hill in 1988 when, after a decade as a Smith assistant, he was offered a chance at the big-time as head coach at the University of Kansas. Then he vacillated and demurred in 2000 when offered the job as head coach at his alma mater after the retirement of Bill Guthridge, Smith’s replacement.

That decision created hard feelings. Divisions within the North Carolina program deepened and multiplied during Matt Doherty’s three-year reign. When Doherty was jettisoned last spring in the face of overt player dissatisfaction and consecutive seasons failing to reach the NCAA tournament, the dutiful Williams responded positively to UNC’s call. The second time, Williams was moved by loyalty to Smith, changed circumstances at Kansas, and family concerns back in North Carolina.

Williams also recognized the program’s need. He’d watched from afar, sometimes sharing observations with Smith via phone during televised games, as the Tar Heels plummeted to 8-20 in 2002. It was a humbling end to a record run of 27 straight NCAA visits. The Heels remained also-rans in 2003, unable to regain the sense of inevitable victory nurtured at Chapel Hill for more than a generation, excellence embodied in the dozens of banners and jerseys hanging from the Smith Center ceiling to celebrate great individual and collective achievements.

Williams returns to Chapel Hill as one of the college game’s most respected and accomplished coaches. At Lawrence he inherited a program on NCAA probation, and made news about rules violations only when defying his profession’s code of silence by identifying cheaters at other schools. During Williams’ 15 seasons at Kansas the program had the best winning percentage in the country (.805, based on a 418-101 record). His Jayhawks averaged 28 victories per year and captured nine conference titles.

KU players graduated, comported themselves well, and reached the Final Four on four occasions, most recently in 2003. (Williams first took a squad to the Final Four in 1991, eliminating UNC before losing to Duke as Mike Krzyzewski won the first of his three national championships.)

Williams’ record is not lost on the returning Tar Heels. “Some guys on the team listen to him more, they’re much more focused,” says Raymond Felton, the outstanding sophomore playmaker. Felton says heeding Doherty wasn’t universally practiced last season, an attitude the floor leader admits “did make me upset at times.”

Williams preaches hard work, a return to unity, and an embrace of tradition. “I want it to be the University of North Carolina’s basketball program that Frank McGuire and those guys before him built and that Coach Smith made the best,” Williams says.

The new coach is conversant with more than Carolina’s lore and legacy. Among his earliest acts was taking his staff to Bullock’s Bar B Cue in Durham for a taste of the South. Presumably they ate family-style.

But much has changed outside as well as within the UNC program. Williams is struck by Orange County’s growth, “development [in] areas that were farms, that were pastureland, that were beautiful countryside.” He’s been surprised by the cost of housing in Chapel Hill, and shocked by traveling I-40 eastbound. “God, going to the airport anywhere from 3:30 to 6 o’clock, I’ve been stunned,” Williams says.

A cheapened ACC
Wait until he gets a load of the reshaped Atlantic Coast Conference, in which in-state schools North Carolina, North Carolina State, Duke and Wake Forest compete.

Next season the ACC could have 12 rather than nine members, having added Boston College, Virginia Tech and Florida’s University of Miami. (BC may not be released from Big East obligations until 2005.) Once a tightly knit entity proud of standing for high principles in collegiate athletics, the new ACC will stretch 1,500 miles in an unabashed reach for richer financial horizons.

The ACC, which expanded based on speculative scenarios that wreaked havoc on other leagues, now ranks as just another greedy player in an athletic realm warped by the love of money. That status became evident during congressional hearings in September. Wisconsin’s James Stensenbrenner, chair of the House Judiciary Committee and a distant bystander, said the ACC expansion “has reinforced concerns that college sports have become increasingly dominated by a number of elite conferences which place their financial interests ahead of their commitment to the principles of fairness and sportsmanship that have traditionally defined intercollegiate athletic competition.”

There’s also little question the football-driven expansion will alter and harm the conference’s signature sport, men’s basketball. Competition will be diluted among a dozen teams. None of the new members have notable basketball traditions.

The 2003-04 season is the last for home-and-home matchups among all league members, a method that yields clear regular season leaders and the sense of equal competitive opportunity that was a basic goal when the conference was founded in 1953. Next year some teams will get to avoid, say, visits to Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium, where the Blue Devils have won 95 percent of their games over the past seven seasons, 90 percent in ACC play.

Each school has only two designated ACC opponents it will assuredly play home and away. That compromises longstanding rivalries; the Wake and UNC men will play only once annually, for instance. The women of Duke and N.C. State won’t play twice, either, unless they schedule a second meeting as a “nonconference” game.

Designated rivalries will be reviewed periodically, opening the way for TV to dictate scheduling to an unprecedented degree.

Several ACC basketball traditions have unintentionally been reinvigorated amid this cheapening. With an unbalanced regular season schedule commencing in 2004-05, the ACC Tournament will become the sole vehicle for determining an undisputed champion. That increases the event’s competitive importance to a level unmatched since 1975. Until then, only the ACC Tournament winner advanced to the NCAA tournament.

The other change has nothing to do with expansion and everything to do with Williams’ return. Since Smith’s retirement, the Duke-Carolina rivalry has been surpassed by the Blue Devils’ grudge matches with Maryland. The addition of a heavyweight coach on the UNC sidelines, one who has met Krzyzewski on the game’s greatest stages, electrifies what is historically college basketball’s best rivalry. Those who know Krzyzewski also expect him to be jazzed by facing such bracing competition.

“I know that Roy Williams will run his program with integrity and he’ll be difficult to compete against,” Krzyzewski says. “So has everyone else been. I kind of laugh when people say now there’s going to be a rivalry. Haven’t you been watching for 20-something years? For me it’s been pretty tough every year. Every year.”

Maybe so, but Duke has won 12 of the last 14 meetings, the most pronounced dominance in the series since the mid-1960s. Each team beat the other at home last season, with the Blue Devils winning the rubber match in the ACC Tournament en route to their fifth straight conference title. No other program previously won more than three consecutive ACC tournaments.

The Devils are again ACC favorites and prime national championship contenders. They’re deep, talented and experienced, a rare trait among contemporary college teams. In an era when gifted young big men frequently jump directly from high school to the pros, Duke boasts another college rarity, a legitimate low-post game with multiple interior threats. Six-foot-nine sophomore Sheldon Williams is the best power player on the squad, augmented by a trio of bulked-up 6-10 performers in Shavlik Randolph, Nick Horvath and Michel Thompson.

A healthy Randolph, who played injured and skinny last season, has the versatility and skills to become a front-rank performer. So does 6-8 freshman Luol Deng, widely considered the top freshman in the country. The Sudan native by way of England will more than replace Dahntay Jones, who graduated. “He’ll be as good as anybody on our team,” Krzyzewski said at the dawn of preseason practice. “Right away. Luol is going to be one of our best players–not just on our team, but in the conference and in the country. He’s that good of a ballplayer. Why hide it?”

The team’s proven prowess rests on the perimeter with upperclass guards Chris Duhon and Daniel Ewing, most valuable player of the 2003 ACC Tournament, and sophomores J.J. Redick and Sean Dockery. Redick set an ACC record last season for free throw accuracy (91.9 percent). The prime focus of opposing defenses, he sputtered down the stretch until his late-game outburst sank N.C. State in the ACC championship contest. This year Duke and a slimmer Redick have broadened their games, likely increasing his effectiveness.

Duke’s women are comparably deep and talented, and if anything, even more dominating than the men. Clemson’s Jim Davis concedes that Gail Goestenkors, his Duke coaching counterpart, has a team that is “head and shoulders above” its ACC competitors. “Everybody wants to beat Duke,” says Tiger senior Maggie Slosser. “Everybody wants to be the team that upsets Duke.”

History reveals why. Duke has won 43 straight ACC women’s contests since dropping a game at N.C. State on February 18, 2001. That means few ACC players have tasted victory against Goestenkors’ Blue Devils. Her teams finished first in three straight regular seasons and five of the last six, captured four consecutive ACC Tournament titles, posted six straight top-10 finishes in the polls, and reached the Final Four in 1999, 2002 and 2003.

Virtually everyone is back from last year’s 35-2 squad, and there are quality reinforcements. Most important is the return of 5-11 senior guard Alana Beard, the single most outstanding player on any squad in the conference, male or female.

Beard is versatile, determined, refreshingly grounded, and “one of the best players that’s ever played,” says Clemson senior Julie Aderhold. If voted the ACC player of the year at season’s end, Beard would become the first woman selected three times since the award was instituted in 1978.

Classmate Iciss Tillis is almost as multitalented and dangerous as Beard, though the 6-5 forward hasn’t demonstrated comparable toughness and consistency. Goestenkors also counts on playmakers Vicki Krapohl and Lindsey Harding, a fleet sophomore; ace outside shooter Jessica Foley; and post players Missie Bass, Alison Bales and Brittany Hunter, the latter two highly rated freshmen. Impressive Monique Currie, the MVP of the 2002 ACC Tournament, is healthy after missing last season with a damaged knee.

ACC women
But even as the Blue Devils make annual runs at national supremacy, ACC women as a whole are losing ground. Once eager to tout their competitive equality with the preeminent Southeastern Conference, now ACC coaches speak hopefully of an easier, 14-game league schedule and the addition of three NCAA-caliber programs when expansion takes effect.

The league’s decline is pronounced. Duke repeatedly appeared in the top 10 over the past six seasons but was joined only three times by other ACC squads, none since 1999. Only Duke has gone to the Final Four from the ACC since Kay Yow’s N.C. State Wolfpack made it in 1998, although the league’s women landed significantly more NCAA berths than the men during that span.

Fan interest reflects the competitive trend. The Blue Devils’ home attendance has more than doubled since 1999, their 5,577 fans per game in 2003 a third more than Virginia, the next most popular program. Last year’s two sellouts of Cameron Indoor Stadium were firsts for the Duke women. But interest in the rest of the ACC is virtually stagnant.

Since 1993, despite more television and newspaper exposure, overall ACC women’s attendance has advanced a mere 546 per game to 2,309. Four schools have seen attendance drop since 1998, when Duke began its current run.

The caliber of play is a factor. Last season only one ACC squad (Duke) had more assists than turnovers, indicative of youth, weak floor leadership and inexact offenses. A single team (UNC) shot with better than break-even accuracy from 3-point range, and only Duke and Clemson made even two-thirds of their foul shots. There’s more experience across the board this year, but just three teams return their leading scorers, and there’s a new coach for the second straight season.

Sylvia Hatchell’s Tar Heels are the most likely squad to make a run at the Duke women, even without Coretta Brown, their top point producer in 2003. Eight of 10 UNC players return from a 28-6 team, led by ace defender and scorer Nikita Bell, 6-6 center Candace Sutton, ACC rookie of the year La’Tangela “Tangee” Atkinson, and Ivory Latta, a freshman who draws raves from Hatchell and others.

Latta, a 5-4 jitterbug from South Carolina, once scored 70 points in a high school playoff game. “I think she might be the quickest player I’ve ever seen,” says Duke’s Goestenkors. Hatchell says Latta is also fast, a great ballhandler, an avid defender, an adept 3-point shooter, and a natural leader with a great heart. “I don’t know that this league’s ever had a player like Ivory Latta,” she says. “I can’t wait for all of you to see her play.”

Come to think of it, the Heels may have the two most gifted point guards in the ACC in Latta and Raymond Felton, another South Carolina product. From Latta, S.C., in fact.

Felton leads a men’s squad rich in talent and sufficiently deep to operate at the near-breathless pace Williams prefers. Guard Rashad McCants and forwards Sean May and Jawad Williams are first-rate. Melvin Scott, Jackie Manuel and David Noel are proven complements. Oft-injured Damion Grant is intriguing at 6-11, and freshman wing Reyshawn Terry could join the mix.

But, as Williams readily notes, the core of this squad lost 36 games over the past two years, a reminder the players don’t have all the answers. Watch McCants to gauge how quickly this lesson sinks in. A dangerous scorer (his 17.0-average led UNC and all ACC freshmen in 2003), McCants’ disrespect for Doherty was sometimes graphically evident on the sidelines.

Wake Forest
Buying into the coach’s approach certainly went smoothly for the men’s team at Wake Forest. Skip Prosser’s second squad finished alone in first place last season, a feat unmatched at the school since 1962. Prosser, a man who cites Ptolemy and Archimedes while discussing the mathematics of scheduling, was 2003 ACC coach of the year. He was also avidly courted by the University of Pittsburgh, but signed a 10-year deal with Wake instead.

The bulk of his ’03 squad returns, augmented by Chris Paul, an exceptional freshman point guard whom Prosser thinks has “great leadership skills.” Wake’s blend of depth, experience, talent and coaching makes the Deacons the single team, male or female, likely to threaten the Duke/UNC stranglehold in 2004.

The Deacs’ most frequently asked question this preseason was how they would replace Josh Howard, who graduated after winning 2003 ACC player-of-the-year honors. But the North Carolina-dominated roster remains impressive. Paul, tough Justin Gray and steady Taron Downey head a solid if small backcourt. There’s a legit center in mountainous and evolving Eric Williams (6-9, 275 pounds), a proven forward in powerful Vytas Danelius, and a variegated group of reserves led by Jamaal Levy, Trent Strickland and Chris Ellis.

Any other challenger to Duke or UNC for ACC leadership must be considered a surprise.

The rest
On the women’s side, Georgia Tech and Virginia could make a run. Last year’s Yellow Jackets earned the second NCAA tournament appearance in school history and posted the third 20-win record. Nine of the top 10 players return, paced by forward Fallon Stokes. A change in intensity could come with new coach MaChelle Joseph, a former Tech assistant and Goestenkors disciple who’s made of sterner stuff than her predecessor.

Virginia, always tough under Debbie Ryan, rallied from a miserable ’03 start to finish strong. Forward Brandi Teamer is among 10 returning Cavaliers who bring improved confidence, discipline and seasoning.

Florida State similarly returns 10 from a squad that tied Georgia Tech for fourth in 2003. Clemson also retains the bulk of last year’s squad for coach Jim Davis, who reports that women are more coachable than men and “smell so much better” in the huddle.

Coach Kay Yow’s N.C. State squad, with nine new players, is the notable exception to the theme of experience among the women. The key to ending her first run of consecutive losing seasons in Yow’s tenure of nearly three decades is avoiding injuries, increasing the tempo of play and improving outside shooting to keep defenses from smothering 6-3 center Kaayla Chones. A quick early test comes on Nov. 23 against Texas, an ’03 Final Four entrant, in the second annual Jimmy V Classic. Duke plays Purdue to complete the doubleheader at Raleigh’s RBC Center.

Bringing up the rear are Maryland, young and rebuilding, and Wake, which would do well to post its first winning season since 1991. The bottom of the men’s heap echoes the ACC’s early days, when Clemson and Virginia were chronic also-rans.

Clemson has a new sideline leader in Oliver Purnell, a former Maryland assistant and a success as a head coach at Radford, Old Dominion, and most recently Dayton. But the Tigers lost Edward Scott, their playmaker and top scorer, and retain a squad of modest capabilities. Virginia is a shade better, but after losing Travis Watson, its best scorer and rebounder, the Cavaliers may be headed for a second straight break-even season.

Georgia Tech is a more intriguing case. The Yellow Jackets play sound defense and have a formidable perimeter corps featuring B.J. Elder, Marvin Lewis and Jarrett Jack. Unfortunately there’s not much of an inside game due to the transfer of forward Ed Nelson, the 2002 ACC rookie of the year, and a jump to the NBA by Chris Bosh, the league’s 2003 rookie star.

This isn’t the pronounced disadvantage one might think, considering the paucity of proven power players in the ACC. That void levels the playing field for most teams, particularly Maryland and the “other” Williams, Gary. The 15-year Terrapin coach lost virtually everyone from his 2002 NCAA championship squad, but calls on gifted veterans in guards John Gilchrist and Chris McCray and forwards Nik Caner-Medley, Jamar Smith and Travis Garrison. There’s also a frontcourt-rich freshman class and a potential star in 6-5 wing Mike Jones.

Leonard Hamilton has quickly mustered a competitive cadre at Florida State, and in his second year should end the school’s run of five straight losing seasons. Junior college transfers spell the difference, namely senior guards Tim Pickett and Nate Johnson and 6-10 center Diego Romero.

Somewhere amid this mix stands N.C. State.

The Wolfpack is seasoned, plays hard, is tough defensively, and has tasted success. The frontline possesses impressive forwards in senior Marcus Melvin, who’s bulked up, and Ilian Evtimov, a masterful complementary player back after blowing out his knee last fall. Melvin, 6-6 junior Julius Hodge, and guard Scooter Sherrill are dependable double-figure scorers.

But the squad has two major gaps.

Josh Powell emerged as a redoubtable interior threat in 2003, then surprisingly renounced his last two years of eligibility and went pro. Levi Watkins and Jordan Collins, neither of them his equal, will try to replace Powell inside. There’s also no established playmaker. Freshmen Mike O’Donnell and Engin Atsur are candidates for the job, which will probably go to Hodge, an All-ACC performer. That should be interesting. The emotional Hodge is much better at creating opportunities for himself than for others.

Herb Sendek’s squads have appeared in the last two ACC Tournament title games and advanced to the NCAAs, ending a prolonged absence. Yet the Wolfpack continues to lag behind the state’s other ACC programs. Sendek’s first seven teams failed to crack the final polls, finish higher than third in the league or get past the NCAA’s second round. This season figures to be no different. EndBlock

Barry Jacobs was the original sports editor of The Independent. He has covered ACC basketball since 1976. An updated version of his “Coach K’s Little Blue Book” will be published in the spring.

Jacobs’ Ladder
1. Duke
2. North Carolina
3. Wake Forest
4. Maryland
5. N.C. State
6. Florida State
7. Georgia Tech
8. Virginia
9. Clemson

1. Duke
2. North Carolina
3. Georgia Tech
4. Virginia
5. Florida State
6. Clemson
7. N.C. State
8. Maryland
9. Wake Forest