Roy Williams used to refer to the ACC tournament as a “cocktail party.” That’s past tense but not because the North Carolina coach’s opinion of the official conference championship has necessarily changed.
“I’ve stopped saying it just because I didn’t want to listen to people criticize me,” Williams said Monday.
To be clear, Williams wants to win the ACC tournament this week in Brooklyn. The Tar Heels (22-9), the No.6 seed, will have to win four game in four days to do so.
Williams was quick to point out Monday that he did indeed pack four suits for the trip to New York. He also explained his original cocktail criticism from his first season in Chapel Hill in 2004.
“It’s not the most important thing in the world to me, there’s no question about that,” Williams said. “So I’ve tried to stop being so crass and cruel about it. I want to win because I’m playing in it. Period. But I really want to win that next one because we’re playing in it.”
The “next” one or the “big tournament” as Williams likes to call it, is of course the NCAA tournament — which UNC won last year for the third time in Williams’ tenure.
UNC fans, and other fans, made more of a big deal about Williams’ attitude toward the ACC tournament earlier in the hall-of-fame coach’s career. He actually won a national title (in 2005) before he won his first ACC title (in 2007).
The Heels are also at the point where winning the ACC title, without going to the Final Four, can be overlooked. Maryland’s last ACC title in 2004, Wake Forest’s back-to-back title teams (in 1995 and ’96) or Virginia’s title in 2014 have a more prominent place in conference lore than some of UNC’s recent ACC title teams.
“We won the ACC tournament in ’07 and ’08 and those were really good teams,” Williams said. “Nobody talks about the 2007 team at all and that was a really team. I mean that was a really good team but nobody talks about that team. But everybody talks about ’05, ’09, ’16, ’17 those teams that get to the Final Four.”
The Tar Heels have won the ACC tournament three times under Williams (’07, ’08 and ’16). Each time they were the No. 1 seed.
Duke is the only team in conference history to win four games to win the tournament. The Blue Devils turned that trick last year, as the No. 5 seed, beating UNC in the semifinals along the way.
The Heels, in turn, won the NCAA tournament. To Williams’ point, not even the most ardent of Duke fans would brag to a Carolina fan about winning the ACC title.
UNC has played its way to the ACC championship game from the second round. As a No. 5 seed in 2015, UNC beat Boston College, Louisville and Virginia (the No. 1 seed) before falling to Notre Dame in the title round.
Given UNC’s shorter bench rotation this season and the heavy minutes the starters have played, a brief stay in Brooklyn might actually be better for UNC. Duke was, after last year’s gauntlet in Brooklyn, worn out by the second round of the NCAA tournament and got knocked out by South Carolina.
But Williams’ attitude is as long as the scoreboard is turned on, the Heels will be in it to win it.
“We’re going to try to win, as hard as we possibly can,” Williams said. “It’s not going to be 99 percent physical and 99 percent mental. It’s going to be everything we have.”
UNC opens tournament play on Wednesday night (9:30 p.m.) against the winner of the Syracuse-Wake Forest first-round game.