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After struggles and doubts, UNC's Williams is elite once again

NEWARK, N.J. -- Roy Williams' first grandchild, Aiden, was born on Jan 1, 2010. It made for a joyous start to a new year, the rest of which wasn't nearly as fun.

"Last year was a horrible year for my career, for my basketball livelihood," North Carolina's coach said of a now-distant 2009-10 season in which his team went 5-11 in the ACC and missed the NCAA tournament. "It was a wonderful year because we had our first grandchild, but that is the only daggone thing that happened that I am proud of."

Just short of 15 months later, Williams' professional life is back to normal. On Sunday, the Tar Heels will make their fifth Elite Eight appearance in seven years. A win over fourth seed Kentucky would earn Williams the eighth Final Four trip of his 23-year career at Kansas and UNC. All it took was a humbling NIT season, the premature departures of four key players, a bumbling November performance in Puerto Rico and the hardest year of his professional life for the 60-year-old coach to realize just how good he's got it.

"It made me appreciate what we had done previous to that," said Williams, noting the Heels' 2005 and '09 national titles. "There's so many things to do, it's hard to sit back in a rocking chair and look up at the stars and say how great it was, because you are still trying to work and get ready for the next season or finish recruiting. ... And I think [last season] made me appreciate how this team has handled a lot of adversity."

After winning the ACC regular season championship outright and earning a No. 2 seed in the NCAA's East Regional, Carolina would hardly be considered a surprise at this point were it to reach Houston. Kentucky's upset of No. 1 Ohio State on Friday even removed the possibility of being the underdog.

But the Heels would have been considered a Final Four long shot back in November when they lost two of their three games at the Puerto Rico Shootout; or on Jan. 16, when they lost 78-58 at ACC also-ran Georgia Tech; or on Feb. 4, when one-time starting point guard Larry Drew II abruptly left the program. Coming as it did on the heels of similar defections last offseason by twin big men David and Travis Wear and the dismissal of fifth-year senior Will Graves, Williams' once rock-solid program seemed knee-deep in a second straight year of turmoil.

It turned out to be the best thing that could happen to the Tar Heels. Freshman point guard Kendall Marshall, whom Williams had inserted into the starting lineup just a few games before Drew's departure, exploded for a school ACC-record 16 assists two nights later against Florida State, signaling the return of Williams' silky-smooth transition offense. Mega-recruit Harrison Barnes started blossoming into the big-time scorer he'd been billed as. Sophomore forward John Henson began a tear of 15 straight double-digit rebound games. Once-struggling junior center Tyler Zeller has scored 82 points in three NCAA tourney games.

"Roy's just done a fabulous job," said Kentucky coach John Calipari, who last saw a drastically different Tar Heels team Dec. 4 in Chapel Hill. (UNC won that game 75-73.) "I mean, they're flying up and down that court. They're throwing that thing ahead. Their bigs are flying. Marshall is finding everything. Barnes is way better. ... They are playing great basketball."

In his comments previewing Sunday's game, Calipari nonchalantly mentioned he'd be "going against a Hall of Famer." Williams was enshrined in 2007, yet by returning to his alma mater in 2003 he ensured his own status as the second-most decorated coach in his own state. And unlike Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, who's cemented permanent demigod status among his team's faithful, two national titles since '05 haven't yet quieted some of Williams' skeptics in Carolina blue, many of whom voiced their displeasure quite animatedly during UNC's struggles of 2010 and early '11.

The criticism admittedly got to Williams at times. In January, he lashed out about some negative callers to his weekly radio show.

"Everybody was talking about how they were Carolina fans for nine million years and how bad we are," he said after the Heels' following game. "I don't give a damn how long you're Carolina fans, those are kids in the locker room, and they played their buns off tonight."

Williams apologized for those comments, but they didn't come out of thin air. At that point he'd been dealing with more than a year of unprecedented frustration, coming off the first non-tourney season since his first year at Kansas (when the Jayhawks were ineligible) and, at that point, overseeing a group of young players not nearly yet at their potential.

He also spent much of 2009-10 in physical pain after injuring his shoulder at a golf event that October and subsequently undergoing surgery.

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"You could just see it, the wear and tear. There weren't a whole lot of good days," said North Carolina assistant Jerrod Hasse, a former player for Williams at Kansas and a staff member for 12 years. "A lot of former players I played with or coached, they called to check in with me to see how he was doing. They saw him on TV and knew it wasn't easy."

As if replacing Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson, Danny Green and Wayne Ellington wasn't daunting enough, injuries decimated the Heels throughout last season and left Williams grappling for answers.

"He was always trying to correct what was wrong, but no one could figure out what was wrong," said Zeller. "It was frustrating for everyone."

But he insists there was no deep soul-searching over the offseason, no overhauls or radical changes.

"Every year I try to re-evaluate myself," said Williams. "Last year I looked into as many things as I possibly could. I have been doing it a long time now. It's hard to evaluate everything you are doing over and over and over and over. But I try to do it a little bit every summer. And over the course of the summer you get a little more excited about what might be able to happen in the coming season."

Williams came back in the fall refreshed, knowing the Tar Heels' youth (six of their top seven players are freshmen and sophomores) would present a new set of challenges, but he was intrigued by the possibilities. Even the rough start seemed to cause more concern for UNC followers than it did their coach.

Beyond the obvious change of point guard, no one within the program can pinpoint why or when exactly the Heels jelled, only that their own expectations seemed to be higher than most on the outside.

"Everyone kept saying we were going to be really good next year," said Zeller. "We wanted to be a great team this year."

The way college basketball works, they'll probably need to win Sunday to achieve that status, which tells you just how high the bar is for programs like North Carolina and Kansas. Win or lose, however, Williams will be coaching his seventh Elite Eight game in the past 10 years, dating to his last two seasons in Lawrence. It's a remarkable and unmatched feat among active coaches over the same span. (His Kentucky adversary, Calipari, comes closest with five. Williams' adversary down Tobacco Road, Krzyzewski, has reached three.)

But Williams may be enjoying this year's run even more than any of the ones with Nick Collison, Raymond Felton or Hansbrough because of all he endured to get back.

"It's been more gratifying for [Williams] just because of what everyone has said [about him]," said Hasse. "He's said it before, 'In 2009, obviously I was a good coach, in 2010 I was a bad coach, now I'm a good coach.' You read articles like, has the game passed Roy Williams by?

"It's been a heck of year. It's been fun."

It's been exactly what Williams needed.