Fast-paced style nothing new for North Carolina
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- One of the lasting images of Dean Smith's Hall of Fame career at North Carolina is point guard Phil Ford standing near midcourt, the ball held against his hip while he ran the famed Four Corners offense.
The stalling strategy certainly worked over the years. When Smith retired in 1997, he held the NCAA record with 879 victories, a total that included two national championships. Teams around the country developed their own version of keep-away until the implementation of the shot clock -- a move likely hastened by the success of Smith and the Tar Heels.
But they did much more than simply hold the ball. Twice during Smith's career, North Carolina averaged at least 90 points for an entire season, and it reached 89 on three more occasions. That mentality is part of what coach Roy Williams brought back to the program, lessons he learned during 10 years as an assistant under Smith.
This season, the Tar Heels lead Division I in scoring (88.4) and assists (19.3) per game, just two of the many reasons they're back in the Final Four for the first time since 2000. North Carolina plays Michigan State on Saturday night for the chance to reach the title game.
"I think it is the same philosophy," Williams said Tuesday. "Perhaps we play a little bit faster, but I thought he played pretty fast, too. When I left here, he said, 'Be yourself.' But I don't think it's that different."
The system begins with the transition from defense to offense, and it can start after a shot or a turnover. Point guard Raymond Felton gets the ball as quickly as possible and races to the other end, with two other guards filling the lane on both sides of the court.
One post player heads straight to the paint while the other trails Felton and serves as an outlet at the top of the key. If something isn't open on the initial fast break, the offense flows smoothly into a mixture of passing and screening until a shot is taken.
"It's definitely a fun way to play," freshman forward Marvin Williams said. "This offense fits me perfectly."
Felton is the catalyst. He uses his uncanny ball handling to find open teammates, a skill he developed from the time he first learned to dribble with both hands at the age of 2.
His father used to send him outside in the dark at their home in Latta, S.C., to practice with a simple drill: Felton kept dribbling until he lost the ball, then came in. One time, he lasted about 30 minutes.
"I just quit at that point," Felton said with a smile.
A big addition to the fast-break offense this season has been Sean May, who returned about 15 pounds lighter and in the best shape of his career. He consistently beats his defender down the court, and he perhaps more than anyone has benefited from Felton's deft passing.
It certainly worked against Wisconsin in the final of the Syracuse Regional, where May finished with 29 points and 12 rebounds. He plans to do the same in the matchup with the Spartans and 6-foot-11 center Paul Davis.
"Paul's about as good as they get," May said. "I always tell coach that a good post player has to play both ends, they have to defend and play on the offensive end. So hopefully, we'll try to do some of the same things that we did against Wisconsin and attack them inside."
With May's domination and Rashad McCants' perimeter shooting, the Tar Heels have incredible balance. Those two combined for 50 points in the victory over the Badgers, and McCants swished a clutch 3-pointer down the stretch to help North Carolina advance.
He's finally over an intestinal disorder that forced him to miss four games late in the season, and in the past five games, he's averaging 17.6 points. Like his teammates, McCants thoroughly enjoys the freedom he has in North Carolina's wide-open system, even if he jokingly found one drawback when asked what it would be like to play for a team that slowed the pace.
"It's definitely fun to play in an up-and-down system," McCants said. "Playing for somebody else, that's something different. If I played for a team that walked the ball up the court, I'd probably get the ball more."