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UNC Rewrites Its Story As Steady Turnaround Turns Into Final Four Run

Hubert Davis’s first season at the helm began with unprecedented losses, but it will finish with a trip to New Orleans.

It finally clicked for North Carolina.

A team that spent much of the season being derided as a disappointment in Hubert Davis’s first year as head coach is off to the Final Four, ringing the midnight bell on Saint Peter’s Cinderella run in a game that was never particularly close Sunday. It was a complete and comprehensive beating by the Heels–efficient on offense, organized on defense and unfazed by staring down the darling of March. And it all sets the stage for one final Duke vs. UNC battle in the Mike Krzyzewski era, in front of the brightest lights and biggest crowd in the rivalry’s history.

Different Heels come to different conclusions as to exactly when everything clicked. Leaky Black and Caleb Love pointed to the week in late January when UNC lost back-to-back games to Wake Forest and Miami in blowout fashion. Brady Manek pointed to the embarrassing home loss to Pittsburgh that jeopardized the Heels’ NCAA tournament hopes. Armando Bacot mentioned feeling things start to shift offensively when they won on the road at Virginia Tech.

But all of them seemed similarly exasperated by the incessant questions in recent weeks of why this team didn’t figure it out sooner. All they heard for the first three months of the season was questions of why they weren’t better, and much of the talk for the last two months has now been “what took you so long?”

The reality? No switch flipped and magically made North Carolina into a Final Four team. UNC’s rise was more like a dimmer switch, gradually coming on throughout February and March and crescendoing into full glow the last few weekends. It’s fair to say UNC got a favorable draw in this tournament: A Marquette team that limped to the finish, a Baylor club far from full strength after being riddled with injuries and a No. 15 seed in the Elite Eight were all about as good a matchup as possible for the Heels. But North Carolina still had to win those games, and as the other 64 teams not headed to New Orleans can attest, that’s easier said than done.

North Carolina head coach Hubert Davis celebrates after North Carolina won a college basketball game against St. Peter’s in the Elite 8 round of the NCAA tournament, Sunday, March 27, 2022, in Philadelphia.

Defensive improvements were critical. This writer saw the Tar Heels in early January at Notre Dame and was astonished by just how bad they were on the defensive end. Lazy switching, poor work containing the ball off the bounce, blown scouting report assignments—You name it, the Heels struggled with it.

It wasn’t instantaneous, and it still isn’t perfect, but Carolina’s defensive improvement has been marked. UNC held three of four tournament foes under 70 points and had kept Baylor to 45 points in the first 30 minutes before things went off the rails in the final 10 minutes. Today, the Heels were disruptive on defense, blowing up the Peacocks’ dribble-weave offense on the perimeter and using their length to impact shots near the basket. Part of the improvement feels effort-driven, which should be a given in March, but this is clearly a more connected Tar Heel team than the one that struggled so much earlier in the season.

“It’s not just one-on-one. It’s one-on-five,” guard Caleb Love said of their defensive effort.

Two and a half months ago? It was a lot more one-on-one.

In reality, North Carolina doesn’t have to be perfect on defense. Four of five starters (with the exception of Black, a defensive-minded glue guy) are explosive on the offensive end, and all four showed it at different times during this run. Love went off for 27 second-half points to will the Heels past UCLA. RJ Davis dropped 30 points on Baylor, a critical performance in downing the defending national champs. Manek has been on a heater all tournament, dropping a combined 54 points in the team’s first two games and shooting a blistering 16-of-32 from deep during this run to New Orleans. And then there’s Bacot, one of the sport’s top interior forces who today became just the sixth player in tournament history to tally 20 points and 20 rebounds in a game. Simply good defense was always going to suffice, and the Tar Heels are finally playing that.

One thing that clearly never wavered was the players’ belief in Hubert Davis. Black said earlier in the weekend that what made those blowout losses in January a turning point was Davis’s positivity. Back-to-back drubbings like the Heels took are essentially unheard of at Carolina, and Black said the team expected Davis to “chew us out”. Instead, Davis doubled down on his belief in these Tar Heels, even as much of the nation started to count them out. And the team rallied with him.

“It definitely strengthened [our bond],” RJ Davis said Saturday. “We knew the potential of this team the whole year … it was more about locking in on what we had to do and not worrying too much about what was being said about us.”

Perhaps that’s why the smiles from Hubert Davis were so big when each Tar Heel starter left the court. He embraced each one of them with a bearhug and a grin from ear to ear. National championships are the standard at one of college basketball’s best programs, but what Hubert Davis most passionately spoke of was giving his players the same opportunities that he had as a Tar Heel great. His favorite basketball memory isn’t from his 12 years in the NBA, but from going to a Final Four in 1991.

“The only thing that I’ve ever wanted is I want them to experience and see the things that I’ve been able to experience here at North Carolina as a player,” Davis said Friday. “I’ve told them definitively and a number of times, that’s what I want from them.”

That Final Four didn’t end in a national championship–Davis scored 25 points that night, but the Heels lost to Kansas 79–73. But in his first year as a head coach, despite all the highs and lows of a season that included four losses by 15-plus points in his first 18 games, Davis has achieved his primary goal. His players will play in a Final Four (against archrival Duke, no less).

“I am so happy right now because I can’t wait for them to walk into that stadium and see how big that place is,” Davis said. “I can’t wait for them to see the hotel with their pictures all over the place. I can’t wait to have that practice on Saturday and have that feeling, only four teams are practicing that day. And I can’t wait until they run out of that tunnel and it’s 80,000 watching them play.”

Finally, the story of this North Carolina is no longer about its early struggles. It’s about a team that has become the latest Tar Heel squad to find its way to the Final Four. And for a program with a lineage as historic as the Heels’, it’s also about the next coach in a line of great ones to bring Carolina to the promised land. 

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