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Opinion: Roy Williams doesn't want to hear talk of his amazing coaching streak at NCAA tournament

USA TODAY SPORTS logo USA TODAY SPORTS 3/22/2019 Nancy Armour
Roy Williams standing in front of a crowd © Provided by USA Today Sports Media Group LLC

COLUMBUS, Ohio — For someone as superstitious as Roy Williams, and he might be the most superstitious coach there is, it was the worst question he could get.

Of all his milestones, and there are many, one of the most impressive is that he’s never lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Ever. In 29 appearances. Whether it was Kansas or now North Carolina, top-seeded teams like his one this year or ones that had to sweat Selection Sunday, Williams and his teams have always managed to at least get a second game.

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Now, this year doesn’t figure to be any different – even if UMBC emboldened little guys everywhere by becoming the first 16 seed to take down a No. 1 last year. The Tar Heels, the top seed in the Midwest, had won eight in a row and 15 of 16 before losing to Duke in that epic ACC tournament semifinal. Coby White might be the best freshman not named Zion Williamson, while any team would love to have any one of Kenny Williams, Cameron Johnson or Luke Maye, let alone all three of them.

A duplicate of offensively challenged Virginia last year, the Tar Heels are not.

And yet, you could almost see Williams go pale when he was asked about keeping his team focused for a game that just about everyone else sees as a rout waiting to happen. It wasn’t because Williams was fighting a cold, either.

“If we lose, don’t let me know where you live. If that's perceived as a threat, it's true, OK?” Williams said – and though he was smiling, it wasn’t altogether clear if he were joking. 

Ole Roy owns his superstitions, which are well documented. If his team plays in a city bordering the Mississippi River during the NCAA tournament, he’ll go and spit in the water. He re-wears outfits during winning streaks and banishes them to the back of the closet after losses.

But this is more than just Williams being Williams. In his first year as an assistant to Dean Smith, the Tar Heels were a No. 1 seed, Duke was a No. 2 and both were assigned to the East Region in their backyard of Raleigh, N.C.

Both lost in the second round, and a fear of looking too far ahead was formed.

“Black Sunday, us and Duke both lost when everybody thought we were going to win, playing close to home. So I've always tried to focus on now,” Williams said. “This is corny, but I tell our guys all the time, `If you're looking down the road at what might happen, that's usually where you're going: Down the road back home.’ We try to focus on just playing this next game.”

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No team is ever going to come right out and say they’re in a different class than their opponent, even if it happens to be true. But Virginia’s loss to UMBC last year humbled everyone – or at least made them realize the unthinkable was actually possible.

Both Johnson and Williams said the Tar Heels watched the UMBC-Virginia game in their meeting room, and were “shocked” to see their ACC brethren go down.

Couple that with Williams’ pathologic reluctance to see anything beyond the next game, and the message has gotten through loud and clear.

Not only could Johnson rattle off what the Iona Gaels do well – he mentioned their fast pace, Tajuan Agee’s effectiveness around the basket and point guard Rickey McGill – he knew how many games in a row they’ve won (10) and how many consecutive NCAA tournament appearances (four) this is for them.

“Coach is all about respecting everyone but fearing no one,” Williams said. “That’s exactly what he told us. You step between those lines, especially in March, you're going to get everybody's best shot. Everybody's playing for their life. Everybody's playing for their season. So we have to take the same mindset.

“We can't go out there and overlook anybody and think it's just going to be easy just because we're stepping out there and just because we're North Carolina.”

Anybody who thinks differently will have to answer to Williams. 

***

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Opinion: Roy Williams doesn't want to hear talk of his amazing coaching streak at NCAA tournament

Related Slideshow: Best of the NCAA Tournament (provided by imagn)


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