Just a week removed from the revelation of academic misconduct at North Carolina, coach Roy Williams had little choice than to spend his Wednesday at ACC Operation Basketball talking very little about basketball.
He answered questions about what he knew and when, and the integrity of the school where he coaches.
It was an odd sight, but that’s where North Carolina was a week after the findings of the Wainstein report revealed an 18-year pattern of more than 3,000 students — nearly half of whom were athletes — receiving academic credit for no-show classes in Carolina’s African and Afro-American studies department. The students took so-called independent study courses in which they were evaluated only by papers that were never even graded.
According to the report, Williams raised questions about why nine of his 10 players at one point were majoring in “AFAM,” but he said Wednesday his assumption was that the athletes might have felt pressure to major in that particular subject because it was easy, instead of being given the choice.
When asked if in hindsight, he realizes he was seeing the smoke but regrets that he didn’t search out the fire — that there was an official in the AFAM department handing out bogus grades — he said: “No, I didn’t see the smoke. I was naive. It’s my university. It’s the University of North Carolina. I went to school there. I worked to get my degree. I went to every class. … I sent my children there. You think I’d want to send my children to a place where they do silly things? I didn’t know. I don’t think I was supposed to know.
“Arts and Sciences up on campus controlled the academic part of our university. Not Roy Williams. You can accuse me of being naive, but truthfully I don’t think you can go past that.”
For their part, the North Carolina players are doing their best to take Williams’ mind off the scrutiny and any impending decision on possible NCAA sanctions. North Carolina, which has another great recruiting class and a more-balanced team, was picked to finish second in the ACC by the conference media.
“We just try to make everything as normal as possible for him,” junior forward Brice Johnson said. “Just try to get his mind off it, try to have a great practice so he can have basketball as a sanctuary, so he can get away from things off the court.”
Unlike when Carolina played part of last season without Leslie McDonald and all without P.J. Hairston because of NCAA infractions, Johnson said Tar Heels players look at the academic scandal as an external distraction because according to the report, the no-show classes were stopped in 2011.
“At the end of the day that was in the past, and we can’t let that bother us,” Johnson said. “We’re all just we’re putting it off to the side. It doesn’t have anything to do with us. That was years ago. We can’t look in the past. We have to look into the future. We have a season to get ready for.”
When Duke was ousted by Mercer in the first round of the NCAA tournament in March, it was a shocker, especially considering the Blue Devils’ roster featured two soon-to-be NBA first-round draft picks in Jabari Parker (No. 2 overall) and Rodney Hood (23rd).
Mike Krzyzewski called a news conference shortly thereafter that lasted nearly an hour, declaring he would evaluate his program from top to bottom — and he started at the top. That’s the same place the Duke coach went for answers when the ACC media convened Wednesday in Charlotte.
“The performance that I was most displeased with was mine,” Krzyzewski said. “There are no excuses.”
The excuse that would be the most obvious is the personal loss Krzyzewski suffered the day after Christmas, when his brother, Bill, died. He didn’t mention the loss specifically Wednesday, but it was evident when reading between the lines.
“Last year was a tough year for me, the second half,” Krzyzewski said. “It just happens.”
So what about now? What’s changed the most in Duke’s program and attitude from last March to now? His senior point guard Quinn Cook said it’s Coach K.
“In my three years I’ve never seen him this dialed in,” Cook said. “It’s no tolerance for anything. Not letting anything slide. If you’re on defense not talking and you’re not doing what you’re supposed to do, he’s ripping you. We’ve got to keep our locker room spotless. Just little things like that. Things he did to build a program, we’re getting back to those things.”
Cook said Krzyzewski seemed to come in that much more fired up after leading USA Basketball to a gold medal in the World Cup this summer in Madrid. Krzyzewski backed that up.
“USA basketball — I thought I was right on with it and that helped,” Krzyzewski said. “I learned a lot, and I’m now right on with my team. I’m very much ready to go. I’m in shape emotionally, physically, mentally, as much as we as coaches can be. In that regard, I’m ready. I think my guys feel that.”
It doesn’t hurt that he brought in another loaded recruiting class led by center Jahlil Okafor, who was tabbed by the media Wednesday as the ACC preseason rookie of the year. And freshman Tyus Jones who gives Duke as talented a point guard as they’ve had since Kyrie Irving was one and done in 2011. Duke was picked to finish first in the ACC, ahead of North Carolina, newly added Louisville and defending regular and conference tournament champion Virginia.
Hall of Famers
With Louisville joining the ACC this season it gives the league four active Naismith Hall of Fame coaches in Rick Pitino, Krzyzewski, Williams and Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim. When Pitino was asked Wednesday if he felt like he was in the most elite company of coaches in his career, he pointed to his past in the Big East with both Louisville and Providence. “I can’t say it’s better than the Big East,” Pitino said. “Remember in the Big East I’m with Jim Boeheim, Rollie Massimino, Lou Carnesecca, John Thompson, Jim Calhoun — pretty darn good coaches.”
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