’Nova has edge against edgy Williams

A combative, defiant Roy Williams has been onstage at the Final Four. The North Carolina basketball coach is known as one of the nicest guys in his profession, but the Mr. Nice Guy act is often interpreted as a sign of weakness.

Bob Knight and Donald Trump are opposing examples. Knight once punched a Puerto Rican cop, stuffed a Louisiana State fan in a trash can, and the list goes on and on. Trump tries to verbally bully his opponents.

Williams always has had critics who question his ability, but he never said much about it until the past week. Now, he’s fighting back. It’s important to note only because a team takes on the personality of its coach, and Williams’ teams are typically perceived as soft.

The Tar Heels are 2½-point favorites over Villanova, a blue-collar tough team, in the NCAA championship game Monday in Houston. Williams is seeking his third national title, and despite impressive career achievements, he gets little to no respect in gambling circles.

“I’m neutral on Roy Williams,” William Hill sports book director Nick Bogdanovich said. “But I do know a lot of gamblers knock him and don’t like him.”

Westgate sports book manager Ed Salmons said Williams is “as bad as it gets.” I talked with a sharp college basketball bettor who referred to Williams as “terrible” while saying some other not-so-nice things.

The point is this: If Williams slips up and has a weak moment, he’s not going to beat Jay Wright, who has done the best coaching job in this NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats used defense to knock out No. 1 overall seed Kansas before humiliating Oklahoma and Lon Kruger, a well-respected veteran coach, on Saturday.

“I don’t think one coach is better than the other,” said Bogdanovich, who is not subtracting a point from North Carolina’s power rating because Williams is going head to head with Wright.

I bet Villanova as a 3-point ’dog for a variety of reasons. Ryan Arcidiacono, Josh Hart and the Wildcats guards will apply more ball pressure and defend with more intensity than any other opponent the Tar Heels have faced in the NCAA Tournament.

In the Atlantic Coast Conference, North Carolina struggled with Duke, a soft team that played no defense. Villanova is a slightly better version of Virginia because the Wildcats are more potent offensively.

Villanova shot 71.4 percent from the field in its historic 95-51 blowout of Oklahoma. Buddy Hield disappeared and the Sooners surrendered early in the second half. It’s probably fair to assume the Connecticut women would have put up more of a fight.

The Wildcats did not need hot shooting to upset Kansas in an ugly game, so they can win in a variety of ways.

But no one who bets North Carolina is a fool. There is a good argument to be made for the Tar Heels, who have more size and depth with 6-foot-9-inch Brice Johnson, 6-9 Kennedy Meeks, 6-8 Justin Jackson and 6-8 Isaiah Hicks. Villanova needs to be strong with its defensive rebounding and hope 6-6 Kris Jenkins and 6-11 Daniel Ochefu avoid foul trouble.

CG Technology books opened North Carolina as a 1½-point favorite. Wynn sports book director John Avello opened the line at 2½, and MGM Resorts opened at 3. Every book in Las Vegas was at 2½ on Sunday.

“Villanova is right there, about 47 percent to win the game,” Avello said. “My number before the weekend was Carolina minus-3 and possibly as high as 3½. I never thought for a minute Carolina was going to lose to Syracuse.

“I like the Villanova team. No real superstars. It’s a bunch of guys who go out there and know each other well. I like Arcidiacono. He’s got a lot of games under his belt, he’s very smart on the court, and he makes the team go. I call Villanova the most complete team in the tournament.

“The problem with Villanova is they won that Oklahoma game so easily, and that doesn’t always bode well going into the next game. You don’t want everything working in one game. I hope there’s something left in the tank. Now they are going against a powerhouse. There’s not a lot of negative things you can say about North Carolina.”

Williams is a target for negativity. He spent the weekend dismissing questions about his possible retirement and the NCAA investigation into academic fraud allegations at North Carolina. And he’s tired of hearing slights of his coaching ability.

“I’m a hell of a lot smarter about basketball than you guys are,” Williams told the media after the Tar Heels ran over Syracuse. “This year I heard more than ever announcers and writers question things more than I ever heard.”

Williams always has had great athletes, and he lets them run. He never worked his way up the ladder at smaller programs where he had to win with coaching genius, defense and grit.

“I think everyone would agree North Carolina is more talented, but Villanova is playing at a super level,” Bogdanovich said. “It should be a hell of a game, and hopefully it will be a tight one.”

It will take toughness to win this title fight, so Williams has a shot to quiet some of his critics.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports betting columnist Matt Youmans can be reached at myoumans@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2907. He co-hosts “The Las Vegas Sportsline” weekdays at 2 p.m. on ESPN Radio (1100 AM). Follow on Twitter: @mattyoumans247

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