When he is not in particularly good humor, a new version of Roy Williams appears at North Carolina basketball practices. This cantankerous character is known as Mean Roy, and he does not accommodate or coddle. And because Regular Roy had grown exasperated by his team's inconsistencies and lack of resolve last week, Mean Roy took over, and the Tar Heels began running for their lives.
One practice emphasis was second-loss-of-ball: A focus, essentially, on players not making the same mistake twice. So if a Tar Heel committed a turnover during a five-on-five drill, for example, he received a warning. If the same player committed another turnover in the same drill, everything stopped. Everyone went to the baseline. The offending individual had to run a 55: Five times up and down the length of the court in 55 seconds. The rest of the team had to run a 33: Thrice up and down, in about a half a minute. These were not mere sprints — these were mean streaks.
"It was past normal, man," center Kennedy Meeks said. "It was like unlimited running. After every drill, after every turnover, everything. It was running, running, running, running, running. I think everybody learned their lesson."
Time and another pass through the ACC gauntlet will tell. The immediate results were auspicious: The Heels' win over Ohio State in the CBS Sports Classic last weekend was about as good as North Carolina has looked thus far. Holding to that upward trajectory is another matter, however. The Tar Heels have been confounding during their 8-3 start — by nearly every available statistical measure, they appear to be a very good team with room to grow. And yet there has been something missing just often enough, especially in head-scratching losses to Butler and Iowa, to inspire the head coach to try schizophrenia on for size and bounce from one personality to another.
Is feistiness the missing element? Williams bet on that, transforming into Mean Roy and attempting to fix things through a guts rehab. North Carolina's legitimacy as an ACC contender depends at least in part on him being right. "If you ask someone outside of our team, what's the M.O. of UNC, it's, 'They're not tough,'" forward J.P. Tokoto said. "We're really just trying to go out here and show everybody we're not some soft guys, we're not some punks playing basketball. We're going to give you a dogfight."
At this point, it's worth noting what North Carolina is. According to kenpom.com, its offensive efficiency ranks 21st nationally, and its turnover percentage (15.2 percent) is 55th. Its maligned defense nevertheless ranks 16th in the efficiency ratings. Opponents have posted an effective field goal percentage of .405, ninth-lowest nationally, and North Carolina is allowing just .719 points per possession in half-court settings, according to Synergy Sports data. (That falls in the "excellent" range, per Synergy.) Even in transition scenarios, an area in which the players have noted some failings, the Tar Heels are surrendering a solid .958 points per possession. North Carolina scores (usually), takes care of the ball, and defends.
So there are the encouraging numbers. There are multiple reliable scoring outlets (Marcus Paige, Brice Johnson, Meeks). There are multiple freshmen who should continue to progress over time (Justin Jackson, Joel Berry II, Theo Pinson). In sum, one might not be faulted for taking a sunny view on this crew.
And here was Williams, after a 23-point win at UNC-Greensboro on Dec. 16, promising the assembled media that he would be overseeing some exceedingly long practices in short order. Before the Ohio State game, Williams proclaimed to reporters that "being a nice guy is not working." What he saw belied statistics; when the Tar Heels' best game eluded them, as it did on atrocious shooting nights against Butler and Iowa, they did not have the wherewithal to compensate somehow, some way.
"He always says, within the rules, they do everything they can to make it easier for us," Paige said. "And all he asks for in return is that we do our work in the classroom and that we play our tails off. And we hadn't been doing the latter part of that. We hadn't been busting our rear ends on every play, every possession. That's on us."
They saw it on film in a loss to Kentucky. "They're getting fast breaks because we don't have five guys sprinting back," Paige said. They saw it on film after the win at UNC-Greensboro. "There were a few plays where we didn't even sprint back, and they got layups," Johnson said. "It was embarrassing for us to watch and it infuriated (Williams)."
So, to address the effort issues, they would begin practicing what Williams preached. Johnson recalled one practice in which the Tar Heels went through their normal form-shooting routine at the start … and then Williams suddenly sent everyone to the line for sprints. No one had done anything except show up. And that was reason enough to run.
The Ohio State win alone isn't reason enough to believe the problems are solved, but it was the desired response for the most part. North Carolina's lead swelled as high as 17 points, and a Buckeyes team that thrives on the run, taking 39.7 percent of its initial shot attempts in transition, managed just 16 fast-break points. Eight missed free throws in the final two minutes nearly derailed the whole thing for the Tar Heels, which allowed Williams to remain mildly irked in the aftermath. "There is not one phase that we can't get a lot better at," he said, "which is good."
This is true, because even if North Carolina solves its own problems, there are problems named Duke, Virginia and Louisville that loom large. And Williams can point to more tangible improvements to make. Paige's efficiency has dipped in a season in which he was expected to be an All-America performer; he averaged 1.01 points per possession last year and is at 0.87 this year. Johnson has been surprisingly ineffective with his back to the basket, averaging just .54 points per possession on 39 post-ups and shooting 10 of 32 in that scenario, per Synergy Sports data.
Still, Williams drawing out some toughness makes sense as a priority. If it is just part of the solution, it is also a quality that can help compensate for shortfalls in the other areas. There is a fairly wide chasm between where the Tar Heels are and where the ACC's elite teams appear to be, but North Carolina seems to have enough material to remain interesting this winter, to be something more than a mercurial afterthought, so long as it applies itself.
This, of course, is why Mean Roy exists. Last weekend's effort was a nice step. But the Tar Heels expect they're in for more anger management.
"He's going to be there," Johnson said. "So we just have to be ready for it."