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North Carolina's Man in the Middle
April 11, 2005
Led by the indomitable Sean May, the Tar Heels held off Illinois to give Roy Williams his first NCAA title
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April 11, 2005

North Carolina's Man In The Middle

Led by the indomitable Sean May, the Tar Heels held off Illinois to give Roy Williams his first NCAA title

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"When you go through tough times, it's human nature to revert to familiar habits," Williams said last week. But the familiar habits of a team that knows little but losing will be losing habits, such as "looking to the name on the back of the jersey rather than the one on the front," as Williams put it. He finally succeeded in convincing his players that, talented individuals though they may be, each had some flaw--May (then at 266 pounds), his weight; swingman Rashad McCants, his self-centeredness; Felton, his decision making--that would make it futile for any of them to try to win games by himself. It took the entire 2003--04 season, but the players eventually acknowledged that there just might be something to all that front-of-the-jersey stuff.

"I've said that last year was my most difficult in coaching, and it was," Williams reiterated last Friday. "This year was easier, but we were always on the edge. We've constantly emphasized getting them to believe in each other and play defense. That second piece, we're still fighting."

That was most evident in the regional final in Syracuse, where the Tar Heels surrendered 82 points to a team, Wisconsin, that usually has no interest in scoring more than 65. Back in Chapel Hill for practice on Monday and Tuesday, Williams, wanting his players to focus on coverage and caroms, unbolted the rims from the backboards before running the team through its regular paces, shooting drills included. Even in the final minutes of the national semifinal with Michigan State, with the game salted away, he lit into McCants and Scott after the Spartans' Maurice Ager sank an open three-pointer from the corner. "They were pointing at each other like, It's not my man," the coach explained. "I said I didn't care. It's North Carolina's man." On Monday night the Tar Heels proved they had learned their lesson: They held Illinois scoreless for the final 21/2 minutes.

To sell his players on that first piece--believing in each other--Williams had screened video during the season of the most selfless team he could find. It was a team that, May recalls, "moved the ball 15 times with, you know, no dribble." The clip was of Illinois, which in the other semifinal had taken Louisville apart 72--57 as if performing a kind of science project.

"The whole thing is to control Felton," Illinois assistant coach Jay Price had said during Weber's Late Night Tar Heels Film Festival. "They don't run a lot of [set plays]; it's all transition and lobs. We have to control that." The Illini couldn't. After trailing by 13 at the half, they made two thrusts that tied the game, and the Tar Heels repelled each with an individual move not exactly out of the Carolina canon. First, with a little more than five minutes to play and his teammates looking on, Felton pulled up to sink a cold-blooded three-pointer. Then, three minutes later, McCants threw up a crazy windmill in the lane, only to have Marvin Williams conjure up a follow, much as he had done to beat Duke a month earlier, to claim a 72--70 lead.

The Illini had two more chances. Luther Head sent a three off the back of the iron, but Ingram retrieved the rebound to give them another shot. This time Head drove through the lane, as if on a sally to the basket, only to spot Ingram just outside the arc. But Felton deflected Head's pass with a forearm, chased the ball down, drew a foul and sank the first of three clinching free throws. Said May, "That steal was the key to the game. After that we could see the doubt in their eyes."

Two placards behind the North Carolina bench on Saturday--sean may? sean will! and rashad mccants? rashad mccan!--had underscored the deceptive simplicity of the task facing the mercurial Tar Heels and highlighted the dominant personalities in their locker room. On the court and off, May and McCants have an almost astrophysical relationship: McCants as a kind of celestial body orbiting May's gravitational field. McCants is still as obsessed with his pro prospects as anyone on the team, talking last week about picking up where soon-to-retire NBA sniper Reggie Miller will leave off. At the same time he has given the public glimpses of his vulnerability: in the intestinal ailment that caused him to miss four games late in the regular season, which his mother, Brenda Muckelvene, attributes to stress over her battle with breast cancer; and in the tattoos on his right and left biceps, which read, respectively, born to be hated and dying to be loved.

May has helped ground McCants. "Sean is so open, but he can have his feelings hurt and 15 seconds later bounce back," says their coach. "And that openness and willingness to step forward has been good for Rashad [to see]. Anything negative happens to Rashad, Sean treats him the same [as always]."

Says May, "I'm more outspoken, he's more internal. We're total opposites, and people say opposites attract."

For his part, May corrected his lax conditioning, reinventing himself with a summer of workouts and dieting. "He's taken parts of his body and moved them around," his coach says. May passed up his hometown team, Indiana, for North Carolina because "it would have been too hard to be the second Scott May in Bloomington," he says, referring to his dad, the former Hoosiers All-America. "And I knew from the way I ate that I wouldn't be a small forward [like him], shooting jump shots." Still, May's footwork, the way he uses screens, how he puts the ball on the floor only when absolutely necessary, all betray the bloodlines of Scott, who led Indiana to an NCAA title in 1976.

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