North Carolina lost to Georgia Tech in Atlanta on Tuesday night. The ending was familiar, UNC's 12th loss, making the particulars as important as the plot of a Road Runner cartoon.
Roy Williams and his secondary break have beeped their way to the second round of the past 20 NCAA tournaments, but this is his turn to play Wile E. Coyote. Nothing he's tried has worked. None of the breaks his inexperienced team needed in order to succeed have gone the Tar Heels' way. Injuries, the X factor for every team every season, have been so bad that even the coach went under the knife for a shoulder injury. The result has been a confounding season, the effects of which Williams, never blessed with a poker face, can't hide.
He's wound up tight. Sometimes, like in Carolina's 2008 national semifinal loss to Kansas, Williams' tendency to tense up harms his team, but pressure is at the core of his basketball existence. He pressures himself so much that, even in good times, he takes losses as if he had lost a lot more than a game. The basis of his system, as effective as there's ever been in college basketball, is using a full-time fast break offense to force teams to match his focus and intensity. There is no taking it easy with Williams, especially during a season that's proven more difficult than anyone reasonably expected.
One must wonder how Williams will bounce back from this season. For the first time since joining UNC's staff as an assistant in 1978, he has failed. Most agree this season will push Williams toward one of two extremes -- more determined than ever or pointed toward the rocking chair.
To the unfamiliar, it may look like Williams is losing his grip. The ejection of an opposing fan in December -- though Williams denies it, many thought he asked that the man be removed for heckling Tar Heels senior Deon Thompson -- made Williams look oversensitive. After beating Michigan State, the top line on the Heels' moot tournament résumé, he took time to chastise fans for not supporting the team in less-glamorous matchups. Last week, Williams had to apologize for saying that, in his life, UNC's struggles are as significant to him as those of Haitian earthquake survivors.
That's horrible PR at a dreadful time, but it's nothing new. Williams has always bristled at criticism. When his teams consistently struggle in any facet, he's almost guaranteed to remind media that he's doing everything he possibly can to correct the problem. He craves reassurance, but suggestions, even from callers to his radio show, are clearly not welcome.
And that's how things were last season, when UNC was on its way to its second national championship in five seasons.
Last year was more tense than this one for the Tar Heels. When Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington and Danny Green chose to spend another season in Chapel Hill, the season became national championship or bust, the last chance for a unit that lost embarrassing games the previous two seasons in the tournament to win the championship expected of it. Williams knew all too well, having coached a 34-2 Kansas team in 1997 that no one remembers because it lost in the Sweet 16, that there's no such thing as good enough in a single-elimination tournament.
Williams knew what he had and knew what it should do. That was far more burdensome than this year's team, which he knew could struggle mightily. In his summer press conference, Williams matter-of-factly said he was more worried about depth and experience on the perimeter than with any team he'd ever coached. One look at UNC's incoming class of 2010 -- a point guard, shooting guard and small forward -- shows that Williams meant what he said. And while picking just one of Carolina's deficiencies this year is difficult, many of them stem from poor guard play.
That, combined with a rash of injuries that has turned one of the deepest teams in the country to eight good men, must make this easier for Williams to cope with. Neither Dean Smith nor David Copperfield could fix some of UNC's problems. As a result, Williams has become a rare sight -- a Hall of Fame coach who, literally, doesn't know what to do.
But this won't break him, nor is it close to the beginning of the end of his career. If something does Williams in, it won't be losing. That's partially because he'll never again lose like this, but it's also because the pressure of winning might be harder to bear than the sting of losing. Hypercompetitive people like Williams walk away because victory is no longer sweet, not because losing is too much to stomach. The latter is what drives them, but the former is what makes it worthwhile.
In spite of how foolish Williams sounded with his Haiti comparison, he knows he's on top. He's got the best coaching job in the country, makes a boatload of money, works in his home state, and was essentially the handpicked successor of his idol, Smith. After the memory of this season fades a bit, he'll go back to being the most popular man in North Carolina. That's a lot to live up to, but it's everything a man in his line of work could want, and not even the second-worst season anyone in Chapel Hill can remember could obscure that.
Roy Williams certainly can't handle many more seasons like this one. But remember -- this is the first time he's had a year like this, and probably the last. If 21 seasons of winning hasn't burned him out, one year of losing won't do it, either.
Bomani Jones contributes to the Page 2 blog and hosts "The Morning Jones" from 7-10 a.m. on Sirius 98, Hardcore Sports Radio.