As UNC’s Roy Williams approaches 900 wins, a look at the nine defining victories of his Hall of Fame career

A college basketball coach does not reach 900 victories without a lot of losing. Roy Williams walked away from the bench on the losing side 260 times, including in the NCAA championship game, on the brink of the Final Four and 56 percent of the time when he’s led the North Carolina Tar Heels into competition against Duke.

We mention this not to undermine Williams’ impending achievement, but to underscore how much sacrifice goes into the milestone he will reach the next time North Carolina wins, the first opportunity coming in an impromptu Wednesday non-league home game against Marquette.

There are all the hours, the energy, the time away from family. There is the criticism that must be endured, the crises that must be confronted, the problems that must be solved. There are the impossible decisions, such as: Do I go home to coach at my alma mater even though I love it where I am? Or: OK, I’m asking this one again …

There have been only four other men’s Division I coaches who reached the pinnacle Williams is approaching, and their names are recognizable even to those who do not follow the game: Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Boeheim, Jim Calhoun and Bob Knight. West Virginia’s Bob Huggins will follow soon, but Williams almost certainly will get there first.

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He never will be the most famous coach at his own college, and Williams is fine with that. If it were necessary, he would insist upon it, such is his respect for the man, Dean Smith, who offered him his first college coaching job. Williams will not have the most victories in his own conference, even his own neighborhood, because Krzyzewski is right up the road with more than anyone who’s ever coached a college men’s team at any level.

There have been three NCAA championships, though, nine Final Fours and enough success to make him a legend at two of the three most successful programs in the sport’s history.

It all began with the late Bob Frederick, then Kansas athletic director, embracing Smith’s recommendation and showing some vision and audacity and hiring a 38-year-old assistant with a career college record of 0-0 and turning over to him a program that had won the 1988 NCAA championship months earlier — and weeks later would be banned from defending that title because of rules violations that occurred under the previous staff.

It will not end with the next victory, because there still are games remaining in the 2020-21 season and Williams, 70, has given no indication there will not be seasons beyond this one. This seems an ideal time, though, to look back and consider the nine wins that were most consequential on the way to the 900 club.

1. Kansas 91, UNLV 77 (1989 preseason NIT semifinal) 

KU’s initial season under Williams had not been a smash, with the players not quite so motivated in the final third of a season with no postseason hopes available and compiling a 3-9 record down the stretch. Although Williams’ second team included four players who’d been part of national championship teams — including forward Ricky Calloway, who transferred over from Indiana’s 1987 champs — there was so little enthusiasm about the Jayhawks they were unranked in The Associated Press’ preseason poll.

That began to seem dubious when the Jayhawks were sent on the road to No. 2 LSU for the preseason NIT second round and pulled out an 89-83 victory over a squad that included Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf and Shaquille O’Neal. But it was proven farcical when the Jayhawks took the floor at Madison Square Garden the following Wednesday and blew out preseason No. 1 UNLV by a 91-77 final.

It wasn’t just the margin. It was how KU played. Their offense was so beautiful the game tape ought to be running on a loop at the Museum of Modern Art. There were 25 assists on 34 baskets, including seven by point guard Kevin Pritchard, and six players scored in double figures. The D held Larry Johnson to 5-of-11 shooting and 13 points. It was a game that not only declared that Kansas was back as a national factor, but also that Williams truly was a gifted coach.

Officially this was win No. 22 for Williams. But this was the one that launched him toward stardom.

2. Kansas 83, Indiana 65 (1991 NCAA Tournament South Region semifinal)

At the Charlotte Coliseum, Indiana rode in with a No. 2 seed, three-time champion Bob Knight on the bench and Calbert Cheaney averaging 21 points per game — and left with a resounding defeat that propelled Williams on to his first Final Four.

The Jayhawks jumped to a 22-6 advantage behind guard Terry Brown’s jumpshooting and rolled to a 22-point halftime lead. It never was a contest.

“My first comment would be how well Kansas played — not only how well they played, but how well they were prepared to play,” Knight told reporters after the game.

Getting to the Final Four still required taking out No. 1 seed Arkansas, but the KU offense was even better in that one, and the Jayhawks earned a 93-81 win.

3. Kansas 73, Illinois 69 (2002 NCAA Tournament Midwest Region semifinal)

Over the course of nearly a decade, the Sweet 16 had become a rough occasion for Williams and KU basketball. It was the Sweet 16 in 1994 when KU found itself on the wrong end of Glenn “Big Dog” Robinson’s last true act of brilliance in one of the great individual college seasons in recent history. It was the Sweet 16 in 1995 when KU was upset, right up the road at Kemper Arena, by a Virginia team whose frontcourt featured a 6-8 center and 6-6 power forward. It was the Sweet 16 in 1997 when the Jayhawks took one of the great teams in their history to Birmingham and found themselves unable to contain the slashing attack of the Mike Bibby-Miles Simon-Michael Dickerson backcourt. Williams has shed a tear after several last-game-in-the-season defeats, but this one really hit him hard.

So, yeah, not a lot of good memories, and no Final Four trips from 1994 to 2001.

Illinois had a whiz-kid coach by the name of Bill Self and a productive backcourt of Frank Williams, Cory Bradford and promising freshman Luther Head, with vet shooter Sean Harrington off the bench.

Even while holding those guys to 13-of-35 shooting from the field, the Jayhawks couldn’t quite shake the Fighting Illini.

Although KU featured upperclassmen Kirk Hinrich, Nick Collison and Drew Gooden, it really was the freshman duo of Keith Langford and Wayne Simien who saved the Jayhawks by coming off the bench and contributing 22 points and nine rebounds.

KU blew out Oregon in the regional final and headed back to the Final Four.

4. Kansas 78, Arizona 75 (2003 NCAA West Region final) 

We all know how that season ended, with Syracuse forward Hakim Warrick blocking Michael Lee’s attempt at a corner three that would have tied the championship game between KU and the Orange at the final buzzer, and with Williams telling a national TV audience that he didn’t give a flip — surprisingly, I’m cleaning that up for Roy, who usually uses no language stronger than “dadgummit” — about the vacant coaching job at North Carolina.

But the Jayhawks’ stirring victory over the top-seeded Wildcats, viewed by many as the team to beat in the 2003 tournament, put KU in the Final Four a fourth time under Williams and gave him one last chance to deliver a title to Kansas before departing for home.

That Arizona team had six future NBA players, but KU’s six-man rotation proved to be just enough. The teams had played earlier that year at Allen Fieldhouse, and Arizona earned a 91-74 victory.

The rematch was a game in which each team took turns trying to blow the other out of the gym with long scoring runs that served to, in the end, keep the game close. They were separated by only three points when Arizona approached the goal in the final 10 seconds seeking a tying jumper, but KU guard Kirk Hinrich blocked Jason Gardner’s attempt and sealed the victory.

5. North Carolina 75, Duke 73 (final game of 2004-05 regular season)

It seems so obvious now: six future NBA players, McDonald’s All-Americans and five-star prospects all over the roster. But Williams’ second team at North Carolina hadn’t accomplished much of significance when the Blue Devils showed up at the Smith Center for that final game.

The core of the team had fallen twice the prior season to Duke and advanced only a single round of the NCAA Tournament. They’d lost a January showdown game against Chris Paul and Wake Forest, then the No. 4 team in the rankings. They’d fallen again to the Blue Devils, by a single point, in their early February meeting at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

Winning this one not only gave Williams his first victory as head coach in the best rivalry in American sports. It also helped position the Tar Heels for a No. 1 NCAA Tournament seed. Sean May didn’t start because it was Senior Day, but it was May Day in the end: 26 points, 24 rebounds. There would be more to come.

6. North Carolina 75, Illinois 70 (2005 NCAA championship game) 

It had been more than a decade since Carolina’s last national title, but more than two since the last one, in 1982, in which Williams was involved.

He had been a head coach for 17 years by the time he got to stand on top of the ladder as NCAA champion. It wasn’t the longest wait ever, but it maybe felt like it given how many times he came close.

May scored 26 points against an Illinois squad that had one of the great guard trios ever — Deron Williams, Dee Brown and Head — but not the size inside to cope with the Tar Heels’ post offense.

“I’m just so happy for myself, my family,” Williams told reporters. “These seniors … they took me for a heck of a ride.”

Presumably, he was referencing more than just seniors, Jawad Williams and Jackie Manuel: Underclassmen May, Raymond Felton and Rashad McCants all turned pro and were NBA first-round picks soon afterward.

7. North Carolina 84, LSU 70 (2009 NCAA Tournament second round)

Williams’ second NCAA championship team at Carolina won its six March Madness games by a combined 121 points — 20.2 points per game — and it really wasn’t that close.

As the tournament began, though, point guard Ty Lawson was dealing with the effects of a toe injury that kept him out of the ACC Tournament — where UNC lost in the semifinals — and the opening NCAA blowout of 16th seeded Radford. It wasn’t entirely certain that everything was lining up right for Carolina to storm through the tournament.

And, with 8:05 left against an LSU team that went 13-3 in the SEC, that had won 27 games but was seeded only No. 8 because the conference was having maybe its worst season ever, the Heels led by only a point, 64-63.

Could it happen? Well, as it turned out, no.

Lawson scored 21 second-half points and assured victory. The rest, by comparison, was easy.

8. North Carolina 71, Gonzaga 65 (2017 NCAA championship game)

Just 12 months earlier, overtime had beckoned during the 4.8 seconds between Marcus Paige’s absurd 3-pointer to tie the score against Villanova and the icy Kris Jenkins 3-pointer that beat the buzzer and sent the Heels home without another title.

So the Tar Heels played Gonzaga fiercely to the end, the margin still at three points inside the final half-minute and the game in doubt until Zags point guard Nigel Williams-Goss had a shot blocked by UNC’s Kennedy Meeks with 17 seconds left and the Heels immediately scored on a run-out.

It was Williams’ third NCAA championship as Heels coach, one more than Dean Smith won as the program’s head coach from 1961 through 1997 — short of only Adolph Rupp, Krzyzewski and John Wooden.

“I think of Coach Smith. There’s no question,” Williams said after. “I don’t think I should be mentioned in the same sentence with him.”

9. North Carolina 91, Duke 87 (2020-21 regular season) 

For the first time in two generations, Carolina-Duke was a game between unranked teams with essentially no likely impact on the national championship picture.

The winner would be toward the back of most projected NCAA brackets, the loser off the grid. If you wondered whether it mattered, though, all you had to do was watch how the Heels and Devils competed.

In his first game of the rivalry, Heels freshman guard Caleb Love delivered 25 points and seven assists. The Heels opened a 12-point second-half lead, but Duke did not relent because the team on the other side wore Carolina blue. The game was not decided until Devils sophomore Wendell Moore committed a traveling violation while attempting a game-tying layup with eight seconds left.

Williams danced when it was over.

One would think that after 900 victories, he’d have placed himself on the list with Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Gregory Hines and Savion Glover. Uh, that has not happened. Williams will have to settle for K, Boeheim, Calhoun and Knight. Great company, either way.

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