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On Basketball

Too Many Sweet 16s Will Sour Fans in a Hurry

By John Feinstein
Saturday, March 12, 2005; Page D10

Roy Williams still remembers the night, in 1997, that he went back to North Carolina to watch his son, Scott, play in a junior varsity game.

"I'm walking out of the locker room after the game," Williams said, "and I bumped into this guy, big Carolina fan, and he kind of took me by the arm and said, 'Roy, I'm a little worried about Coach.' I asked him why, and he said, 'I'm afraid the game might be passing him by.' "

Georgia Tech's Paul Hewitt.
Georgia Tech's Paul Hewitt.
Georgia Tech's Paul Hewitt. (Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)

Because the coach in question was Williams's mentor, Dean Smith, Williams said he "blistered the guy." That North Carolina team went on to win 16 straight games, the ACC tournament and advanced to the Final Four before losing to Arizona.

Expectations, especially in college basketball -- where the fans and the media are so fervent -- may be the most difficult thing coaches and their players face. Williams has dealt with huge expectations almost every year he has coached, dating from his first trip to the national championship game with Kansas in 1991. Smith dealt with them for the last 30 years of his career, after going to his first Final Four in 1967. Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski has become accustomed to being a target the last 20 years. When Maryland reached the NCAA tournament's Sweet 16 in 1994, people were ready to crown Gary Williams king. When the Terrapins lost in the Sweet 16 in 1999, the same people who had planned the coronation grumbled loudly that Williams was nothing more than a round-of-16 coach.

The sweetness had worn off.

Perhaps no coach has dealt with that phenomenon more this season that Georgia Tech's Paul Hewitt, whose team finally locked down its NCAA bid by beating Virginia Tech, 73-54, in yesterday's ACC quarterfinals. Hewitt insisted yesterday that he hasn't let the raised expectations affect his mood -- most of the time.

"What I don't understand is why it is when a key player gets hurt in the NBA, people adjust their expectations, but it doesn't seem to happen in college," he said. "We lose B.J. [Elder] at a crucial point in the season [Jan. 1] for five weeks and people were asking me if I was mystified by our inconsistency. To me, it wasn't a mystery. We're in a really good league and we lost our leader. In the ACC, you can play a good game some nights and still lose. I'm not sure people understand that all the time."

The more you win, the higher the expectations go.

"We've had a great time this season because no one expected anything from us," Brad Greenberg, brother and top assistant to Virginia Tech Coach Seth Greenberg, said yesterday. "Of course when we got to 6-5 in the league, I got an e-mail from one of our ex-players saying, 'Well, now you guys ought to finish no worse than 9-7.' I'm thinking the guy should know better than to think this is easy because he played. But now, he's just another fan with expectations. We already know that next year people won't be excited about 8-8. The bar will be raised."

It is remarkable how high the bar can go. In 1997, Kansas was 34-2, losing on a last-second shot at Missouri and in the round of 16 to Arizona, which went on to win the national championship.

"We won 34 games that year," Williams said. "We had six seniors, all of whom graduated, two as academic all-Americans. We had a great season. But we were ranked number one all year and didn't win the national championship. So, a lot of people felt like we had failed."

No one knows both sides of the expectation coin better than Lefty Driesell, who sat four rows behind the Clemson bench yesterday watching his former assistants, Oliver Purnell and Ron Bradley, try to coach the Tigers to a huge upset.

"I always enjoyed years where we were the underdogs more than when we were the favorite," he said. "I think most coaches are like that. For one thing, it's easier to deal with the kids. They're more attentive, not as cocky. Plus, it's more fun to build kids up when you're trying to convince them that they're good than have to tear 'em down because they're cocky.

"The best situation is the one Seth [Greenberg] was in this year. He did a great job, but I'm not sure Mike [Krzyzewski] hasn't done his best job this year. But no matter what he does people figure he's supposed to be good so they don't give him credit. It's tough when the only time you make news as a coach is when you lose."

In fact, Duke lost four road games this season and the home team's fans stormed the court each time -- including Sunday at North Carolina, the No. 2 team in the country and the top team in the conference.

"At some point you just have to accept that's the way it's going to be if you have success," Krzyzewski said. "I always tell my players that one way to stop having people storm the court when they beat us is for us to stop being good. If there's one thing I've come to appreciate the last few years it's what Dean Smith accomplished back when I was first in the league. Because his teams were always the target, always took the other teams' best shot and when they lost it was a big deal. I didn't understand that kind of pressure when I was younger. Now, I understand it."

Players feel pressure too, but most of the time when a team doesn't live up to expectations, the major burden falls on the coach. "When I first got here, I had people come up to me and say, 'If you'll just play up-tempo and beat Duke every once in awhile we'll be happy,' " Wake Forest Coach Skip Prosser said. "We're 26-4 right now, we've beaten Duke some, we've beaten Carolina some, we're ranked third in the country. Last week at a lunch a fan stood up and said to me, 'Coach, isn't there something you can do about our defensive field goal percentage?' I had to laugh. If I didn't laugh, I'd cry, so I decided to laugh."

Which may explain why Driesell used to say this about Dean Smith: "He's the only man in history to win more than 800 games and be the underdog in every one of them."

That was in tribute to Smith's ability to find a reason why Carolina was hoping to squeeze out a one-point win against Bethune-Cookman. Or UNC Asheville. All coaches aspire to be the underdog. The truly successful ones know they aren't going to get to play that role very often.

Walking out of the building yesterday, Bradley tried to find a silver lining in his team's come-from-ahead loss to top-seeded North Carolina. "If we'd won, then our fans would have been thinking we should win the national championship next year," he said with a smile.

Actually he was wrong. They probably would have been thinking the Tigers should win the national title this year.

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