March Madness: UNC upgrades, belief in Hubert Davis causes Final Four run

It finally clicked for North Carolina.

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

Different stubs come to different conclusions as to exactly when everything clicked. Leaky Black and Caleb Love highlighted the week in late January when UNC lost back-to-back games to Wake Forest and Miami in explosive fashion. Brady Manek pointed to the embarrassing home loss to Pittsburgh that put the Heels’ NCAA Tournament hopes in jeopardy. Armando Bacot said he felt things started to change offensively when they won on the road at Virginia Tech.

But all also seemed exasperated by the constant questions in recent weeks about why this team hadn’t figured it out sooner. All they heard for the first three months of the season were questions about why they weren’t better, and much of the conversation for the past two months has now been “that did it take you so long?”

Reality? No switch flipped and magically made North Carolina a Final Four team. UNC’s ramp-up was more like a dimmer, lighting up gradually throughout February and March and crescendoing in full glow the final weekends. It’s fair to say that UNC got a favorable draw in this tournament: a Marquette team that limped to the finish, a Baylor club far from complete after being riddled with injuries and a header from series #15 in the Elite Eight were all about as good. matchup as possible for heels. But North Carolina still had to win those games, and as the 64 other teams that didn’t travel to New Orleans can attest, that’s easier said than done.

Defensive upgrades were essential. This writer saw the Tar Heels in early January at Notre Dame and was amazed at how defensive they were. Lazy switching, poor work containing the ball off the rebound, blown scouting report assignments – you name it, the heels struggled with that.

It wasn’t instantaneous, and it still isn’t perfect, but Carolina’s defensive improvement has been marked. UNC held three of four tournament opponents to less than 70 points and held Baylor to 45 points in the first 30 minutes before things went off the rails in the final 10 minutes. Today, the Heels disrupted the defense, blasting the Peacocks’ dribbling offense on the perimeter and using their length to make shots near the basket. Some of the improvement is effort-driven, which should be obvious 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 against five,” guard Caleb Love said of their defensive effort.

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

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In reality, North Carolina doesn’t need to be perfect on defense. Four of the five starters (except Black, a defensive-minded glue guy) are explosive on the offensive side, and all four have shown it at various times during this run. Love went for 27 points in the second half to put the Heels past UCLA. RJ Davis dropped 30 points to Baylor, a critical performance to defeat the defending national champions. Manek has been on a heat throughout the tournament, dropping a total of 54 points in the team’s first two games and shooting a blistering 16 of 32 from deep in that run in New Orleans. And then there’s Bacot, one of the sport’s finest inner forces who today became just the sixth player in tournament history to score 20 points and 20 rebounds in a game. Simply good defense was always going to be enough, and the Tar Heels are finally playing that.

One thing that clearly never wavered was the players’ faith in Hubert Davis. Black said earlier in the weekend that what made those catastrophic losses in January a turning point was Davis’ positivity. Back-to-back hits like the ones the Heels suffered are essentially unheard of in Carolina, and Black said the team expected Davis to “chew us up.” Instead, Davis doubled down on her belief in these Tar Heels, even as much of the nation started counting them. And the team rallied around him.

“It definitely reinforced [our bond]said RJ Davis on Saturday. “We knew the potential of this team all year… it was more about focusing on what we needed to do and not worrying too much about what was being said about us.”

Maybe that’s why Hubert Davis’ smiles were so big as each Tar Heel starter left the field. He kissed each of them with a bear hug and a smile from ear to ear. National championships are the norm in one of college basketball’s top programs, but what Hubert Davis spoke about most passionately was giving his players the same opportunities he had as a great Tar Heel. His favorite basketball memory dates back not to his 12 years in the NBA, but to his participation in a Final Four in 1991.

“The one thing I’ve always wanted is that I want them to experience and see the things that I’ve been able to experience here in North Carolina as a player,” Davis said Friday. “I told them definitely and repeatedly, this is what I want from them.”

This Final Four did not 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 head coach, despite all the ups and downs of a season that included four losses by more than 15 points in his first 18 games, Davis achieved his main goal. Its players will play in a Final Four (against its great rival Duke, no less).

“I’m so happy right now because I can’t wait for them to come into this stadium and see how big this place is,” Davis said. “I can’t wait for them to see the hotel with their pictures everywhere. I’m looking forward to having that practice on Saturday and getting that feeling, only four teams are training that day. And I can’t wait for them to come out of this tunnel and have 80,000 people watching them play.

Finally, the history of this North Carolina is no longer that of its first fights. This is a team that became the last Tar Heel team to fight their way to the Final Four. And for a program with such a historic line as the Heels, he’s also the next in a line of greats to bring Carolina to the promised land.

More college basketball coverage:

• Kansas steps up the gas, proves mettle as highest seed still standing
• Villanova vintage? Maybe not. Does it matter?
• Move on, Cinderella: A Blueblood Final Four has arrived
• Coach K and Duke have a truly epic ending at hand

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