CHARLOTTE, N.C. — When Syracuse's head coach Jim Boeheim was asked about Hubert Davis’ accomplishments in his first year at the helm of the UNC program, the Hall of Famer cracked a joke about the fans' perceptions of Davis when the Tar Heels were limping through the early stages of conference play last season.
“He was fired about halfway through the year by the fan base,” Boeheim said. “If they have a bad half-season this year, they’ll want to fire him again."
Georgia Tech’s Josh Pastner quipped that “40-0” is the expectation for North Carolina this year, and anything else is a "total disappointment."
“It’s hard to repeat what he did,” he said. “I said they should’ve built a statue already of Coach Davis.”
Needless to say, the expectations for Davis entering his second season as UNC’s head coach are at an all-time high.
Last year, Davis nearly led the Tar Heels to a national title, securing the 2022 NCAA East Regional Championship, a historic Final Four win over Duke and an upset of No. 1 Baylor along the way. This year, the team is entering the season practically a consensus No. 1, being tapped as the top team in the nation by Andy Katz's Power 36 and ESPN's Way-Too-Early Top 25.
Despite all of this, at the ACC Tipoff on Wednesday, Davis was quick to dismiss the mere notion that he is feeling any pressure. He doesn't view his expectations in his second season as any different than those of his first or of any year he’s been a part of North Carolina’s program, for that matter. To him, this high bar has always been a “foundational part of Carolina.”
“The nine years that I was an assistant coach and now the two years as a head coach, we want to win every single ACC title, we want to win every tournament title, we want to get to the Final Four and we want to win a national championship,” Davis said.
While Davis emphasized that his approach this season is no different than it was last season, junior guard RJ Davis said that the coach has left a stamp on the program that is more evident this year.
“I think just the way he approaches practice, he’s still passionate, but you can kind of see the emotional side come out (more), but that’s just because he wants us to win so bad,” he said.
In UNC's main stage interview, when junior guard Caleb Love remarked that Davis has been “great” at “keeping (the team) level-headed," the coach burst out into laughter, conceding that he “got on them a little bit yesterday in practice.”
Senior forward Armando Bacot later admitted that during this practice on Tuesday, the blue team — a squad composed of reserves Seth Trimble, Will Shaver, Justin McKoy, Tyler Nickel and Dontrez Styles — was giving the starters a run for their money. He said that Davis “really got on us” and kept “gassing up the Blue team” to “kick our butts."
“Coach Davis, he's a fiery and competitive coach, everyone that’s on the team knows that he's not one of those coaches where, if you’re one of the better players or the best player, he’s just going to let you ride,” Bacot said. “He yells at me more than anybody. He yells at me the most.”
At one point during the team’s Tuesday practice, the Tar Heels missed three wide-open layups during individual work, with Love missing the third and final layup that seemed to set off a fuse. The team was promptly put on the baseline to run sprints.
“It was actually great to see because he can call me out, and he knows he can call me out on anything — if I mess up or make a mistake,” Love said. “I’m not perfect, and he always preaches that he’s not perfect as well.”
This early accountability isn’t because there’s a new goal at stake. The expectation within UNC’s camp last year was, much like the national expectation this year, to win a national championship.
Last season, photos of the Caesars Superdome in New Orleans — the location of last year's Final Four — were posted in the locker room on the first day of practice because Davis “wanted (the team) to see where we were heading in April.” Coming off two lackluster campaigns before Davis took the helm, very few believed the Tar Heels had a chance to fulfill these lofty goals, but the coach's vision wound up coming to fruition at just the right time.
“The only difference between last year and this year is the outside noise," Davis said.
And for Davis, it’s easy to “tune out the noise”. In the almost 35 years that have elapsed since he first played at UNC, the buzz of high expectations has become a smooth hum to him.
“I only have one level and it's ‘on,'" Davis said. "So there’s no difference in approach this year compared to last year. The attention to detail, the focus on our preparation, our practice, and letting our play speak for itself, those are the things I consistently talked about last year and those are the things that I’ve consistently talked about through the offseason and the beginning of practice.”
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