CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The national spotlight is back on the North Carolina men’s basketball program.
Two down years in 2020 and 2021, the retirement of Hall of Fame coach Roy Williams and a shaky start to last season led UNC to shrink away from national relevancy. Flash forward to now, and UNC sits atop many national outlets’ preseason rankings.
After making a run to the national title game and returning a veteran-heavy roster, the Tar Heels showed that all of the speculation surrounding the future of the program was just that — speculation.
In front of a crowd of reporters at the ACC Tipoff on Wednesday, head coach Hubert Davis said his expectations remain the same amidst the changing dialogue about the team.
“The only difference between last year and this year is the outside noise,” Davis said. “Last year, the outside noise didn’t think we had a chance. The outside noise this year thinks we do have a chance.”
This is the first time that many players on the current UNC roster have come into a season with this much hype. Senior forward Armando Bacot remembers being a part of a highly-touted 2019-20 team that won just 14 games and finished tied for last in the ACC.
“A lot of people, they tried to count out North Carolina,” Bacot said. “I feel like we’re just back to where we started.”
Bacot, a first-team All-ACC selection, leads a group of returning players that earned their stripes back in March. Before last season, the only player on the roster that had won an NCAA Tournament game with UNC is graduate wing Leaky Black.
Junior guard RJ Davis said that postseason experience will prove invaluable for the team.
“We have experienced players who’ve been there before, been in big moments, been in big games,” RJ Davis said. “We know what to expect, and I think that is kind of an advantage for us this upcoming year.”
RJ Davis and Caleb Love comprise a talented backcourt that occasionally struggled to share the floor early in their careers. The duo seemed to finally click down the stretch, and now they say they’re ready to carry that synergy into their junior seasons.
“You play back the NCAA Tournament and you see our growth (from the beginning of the year to the end of the year),” RJ Davis said. “It was tremendous how confident we got individually and collectively.”
In a program with so much championship history, it’s hard not to make comparisons. In 1982, UNC won the NCAA Tournament after losing in the title game the season prior. The same thing happened in 2017, when an experienced group of upperclassmen avenged the 2016 team’s loss to Villanova in the championship game.
Love doesn’t invite the comparisons to the 2017 “Redeem Team,” though. Instead, he says the team wants to “write its own story” this season.
“I feel like we’re a whole different team,” Love said.
It may be a different team, but the Tar Heels enter this season with that same “championship or bust” mindset that the college basketball world has come to expect from this program.
“It’s amazing to see, you know? UNC basketball is back on top,” RJ Davis said. “It’s kind of reversed the script again, just to get back to where Carolina basketball always was.”
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