This weekend’s Final Four will feature some of the powerhouses of college basketball — and along with that, some household names.
Villanova will be led by two-time national champion Jay Wright, Kansas by Naismith-Hall-of-Famer Bill Self and Duke by Mike Krzyzewski in his 42nd and final season.
But North Carolina will be represented by a man quickly making a case to enter that echelon of greats: Hubert Davis.
When Davis was brought on last April, the team had gone 32-30 in the previous two years under the legendary Roy Williams, who had 903 wins in his careers — the third most by a Division I coach. Even with the last two seasons in mind, Davis couldn’t have asked for bigger shoes to fill.
Coaches such as Williams and Dean Smith have delivered multiple championship banners for North Carolina. Even Bill Guthridge, who was at UNC for three short seasons, kept the team among the best in the nation.
For UNC men's basketball, the standards are always high and the margin for error is slim.
And for Davis, the first Black head coach in the program's history, pressure has been mounting since day one.
Many questioned his ability to lead the Tar Heels when he was hired. Expectations were high for a North Carolina comeback following the struggles of its recent seasons.
With all the initial doubts and skepticism, one would think that getting to the Final Four would bring great validation and silence all the naysayers.
But none of that matters to Davis.
He is someone who downplays high profile matchups, quotes scripture and calls all of his players “unbelievable.” He is someone who displays an array of emotions on the sidelines, spending much of the first four NCAA Tournament games clapping, jumping and yelling.
He isn’t doing it to prove himself, though.
“It’s missionary work,” Davis said after UNC’s Round of 64 win against Marquette.
He’s said that several times over the last few weeks now.
At times, he can sound like a broken record. He can be repetitive with his messages after games, often stressing things like “energy, effort and toughness” or “ignoring sideshow distractions” or trying to score through “post and penetration.”
But really, it reflects his mentality as a coach and the Tar Heels' strategy as a team.
Of course, he has never served as a head coach at the collegiate level — let alone at a storied program like UNC — but he had a unique familiarity with the players as an assistant to Williams for nine years.
The roster going to the Final Four on Saturday is essentially the same as the one that went 18-11 just a year ago. Sure, there’s a Brady Manek where there was once a Garrison Brooks, or a Dontrez Styles where there was once a Day’Ron Sharpe. But four of the team’s five starters all were on the team for that Round of 64 exit to Wisconsin in 2021.
This season, it wasn’t certain that North Carolina would even make the NCAA Tournament. The team lost big twice before conference play, the ACC was regarded as a weak conference and the team mostly trudged through it before March 5.
But on that fateful day, Davis won a lot of people over.
The Tar Heels marched into Cameron Indoor Stadium and defeated a then-No. 4 Duke team that had crushed UNC by 20 points at home just a month before. Davis had the team ready to bypass the spectacle that was Krzyzewski’s final home game and play its own brand of ball.
That has continued throughout the NCAA Tournament, as the team has played its best basketball of the year.
Wins against the higher-seeded Baylor Bears and UCLA Bruins defied an earlier trend of the team’s struggles against elite teams.
Though North Carolina was losing its luster before Davis took over, he’s brought the team back to the biggest stage in his own way.
He’s exceeded expectations in his first year, making it further than the Mark Fews and the John Caliparis of the coaching world and still competing for a national championship. He's taken the Tar Heels the farthest they've been in the tournament since 2017.
In the end, Davis just needed time to figure things out. His in-game rotations and coaching strategies have clicked at the perfect time.
Regardless of how he’s gotten to this point, he made it.
With all that’s transpired, it feels like Davis has been at the helm for longer than 11 months. But with what the team’s accomplishing so far, he certainly will be.
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