By Adam Lucas
NEW ORLEANS — Maybe you had convinced yourself that Monday was just a bonus.
Maybe, in the delirious aftermath of Saturday’s era-ending win over Duke, you’d persuaded your mind that you’d be completely relaxed during Monday’s national championship game against Kansas. Maybe you even made a few existential bargains on Saturday: “If we can just win this one, I’m OK with anything on Monday.”
At some point against Kansas, though — perhaps it was when Carolina fought back from an early 7-0 deficit or maybe when Brady Manek had a couple of big first half blocks or certainly when the Tar Heels had a 15-point halftime lead — all the rationalizations ended and reality began.
Carolina was playing in the national championship game. Three of the last six NCAA Tournament finals have featured the Tar Heels, so it’s a regular feature of the event, but it still never gets old. And now it was right there.
Getting here matters. It matters for Hubert Davis‘program. Before the season, the primary question about Davis was pretty simple, considering he’d never been a head coach above the college junior varsity level — can he coach? He now goes into the summer recruiting period having definitively answered that question.
Everything he promised this year’s team actually happened. That will be meaningful when he gathers the 2022-23 team for the first time. There’s a trust and a belief that was established this year, a mentality that can’t be created by slogans or catchphrases. It only happens through wins and through improvement, and the Tar Heels had plenty of both this season.
It matters for the future. Seth Trimble was in New Orleans this weekend, and in less than five months he’ll be a Tar Heel freshman who is trying to help Carolina get back to this weekend. Now he’s seen it. He’s seen the hotel lobby crowds and the enormous crowds in a dome and the feeling you get from being on the sport’s absolute biggest stage (even when that stage gives way, frustratingly, beneath your feet). There is no way you could experience this – there’s that word again – and not want to be part of it.
And it matters so much to us. It had been five years since we had a March like this. That’s a long time in the Carolina world, because we’re incredibly spoiled. This March was all about remembering what this is like, about pausing our lives for four weeks to obsess over every single detail, to remember what it’s like to do things that make no sense because they make perfect sense.
I have a friend who sprinted to the Superdome bathroom in the closing minutes of the Duke game on Saturday night. There, she encountered a Tar Heel fan who was watching one of the most significant Tar Heel games of our lifetime in the bathroom. “Every time I leave the bathroom, Duke scores,” the woman said. So she simply watched the game on a Superdome TV screen outside the bathroom, sticking her head out of the bathroom to get score updates. Most of us are nodding our heads in understanding right now. We are sick, and we realize that. It is both agonizing and glorious. My friend sprinted back to her seat.
Whether this was your first Carolina March or your 50th, it was fantastic. And every single person enjoyed it, even the brand new fans who might have played a different role in previous seasons. That’s why Roy Williams, who was celebrating in the Dickies Arena stands after the win over Baylor, grabbed RJ Davis’ brother, Bryce.
“Let’s take a picture,” the Hall of Fame coach-turned-superfan said. “But let’s do it like this.”
And then, completely without warning and entirely fueled by Carolina’s incredible victory, Williams flexed majestically for the camera.
It was different for all of us. The previous 18 years had told us how an NCAA Tournament run works, with the secondary break and giant numbers written on the white board after each win and spitting in the river.
This season was about showing all of us that there can be some differences — and that can work, too. Hubert Davis‘way is also the Carolina way, as he made clear throughout the season. But there was enough innovation and imagination this season to convincingly show Davis is willing to successfully deviate from the blueprint. Sometimes the hardest lesson for a coach to learn is when to be different from something he knows worked for someone else. Davis showed faithfulness to the Carolina model mixed with a healthy dose of independence.
And, of course, there were also meaningful similarities, on and off the court. Throngs gathered on Franklin Street. Campus was fixated on basketball again. Hundreds gathered for sendoffs and impromptu welcome-homes (the final gathering will be Tuesday mid-afternoon at the Smith Center). Superdome photos went into lockers to help the players visualize where they wanted the season to end.
From the very first day of the season, Hubert Davis absolutely refused to allow the Carolina basketball story to be about him. The players, the players, the players. This should sound familiar to anyone who has followed the Tar Heels since, oh, about 1961. When Davis ends his coaching career in Chapel Hill, don’t look for a farewell tour. That’s not how he was taught, not how he’s comfortable. That doesn’t mean doing it another way is wrong. It just means it’s not Carolina.
The foundations of the Davis era were constructed this year on kindness and decency and the Carolina experience and — don’t forget this — absolute competitiveness at all times. Never forget that this is the head coach who is still miffed at Marquette… because of the 1977 championship game. This is also the same coach who watched his players get on the bus on March 5 to go to Durham and then bounced up to the top step and faced them. “Do not get on this bus,” he told them, “if you have a shred of doubt about us winning this game.”
It’s difficult anymore to know what is next in college basketball. We don’t know who is leaving, which has been a Carolina basketball staple of the most successful teams for decades. But we also don’t know who is coming in (There’s not a Brady Manek in every class, folks.).
This is a completely different generation of college basketball. RJ Davis introduced a new t-shirt design after the win over Baylor. “We’ve had them for a while,” he said, “but I wanted to wait to drop them after a big game.”
Dean Smith never had to think about whether JR Reid was going to drop a new t-shirt design. And as different as that might feel, it’s OK, too. Because Hubert Davis—Schooled in his very traditional Carolina upbringing — seems to understand how to balance the team and the individual, the Tar Heel goals and the personal goals. It’s not a coincidence that all five starters can honestly look at themselves tomorrow morning and say that under Davis’ direction, they just had the best basketball season of their individual lives.
There was some concern that the NIL era would supersede team goals. Nope. Even in 2022, to paraphrase Williams, the winners get the awards, the rewards, and the NIL deals. Hubert Davis understands that, and his 2022 team just proved it.
How good was the 2021-22 North Carolina basketball season? The Tar Heels beat defending the national champion of Baylor, a number-one regional seed, in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, at a venue less than an hour from Baylor’s campus… and that was only the third-best win of the year.
No matter how disappointed you are after Monday night, I challenge you to read the next paragraph and not break into a smile:
Mike Krzyzewski’s last game at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Dontrez Styles’ corner three against Baylor. Hubert Davis dancing on the podium in Philadelphia. Caleb Love’s three-pointer over Mark Williams. The postgame celebration after the win over Duke in New Orleans.
That’s more moments than some programs have had in their history. We got them all in the last 31 days.
There are absolutely no guarantees. It’s a credit to this year’s players, to all 17 of those individuals who were in New Orleans on Monday night, that they absorbed what Davis was saying and made it work. It won’t happen every season like this. Injuries happen and sometimes the chemistry doesn’t fit.
This year, somehow, it did. We don’t get to do it this way very often. Most of the Tar Heel NCAA journeys are as the favorite. This way is different. This way, every unexpected win is just a little sweeter than the last one. Last weekend, in Philadelphia, most of the Tar Heels were in the second floor team meeting room celebrating the win over UCLA. Hubert Davis‘daughter, Gracie, watched her dad laugh and hug and maybe dance a little. “Dad,” she said, “is in a really good mood.”
It was contagious, and it permeated the entire program. Jeff Lebo went to work on Tuesday of this week still wearing his Final Four hat. Davis boarded the plane for New Orleans and looked around with a wide grin. “This is one of those planes you take to Europe!” he exclaimed. In the locker room after Brady Manek had passed 2,000 career points earlier in the Tournament, it was Caleb Love who announced it to the team.
That fun and that spirit are the emotions that stick out most from this tournament run. It was incredibly stressful… precisely because you wanted them to keep enjoying it.
Eventually, though, you had to understand that these weren’t surprises anymore. This was a team kept together by a first-year coaching staff, staying focused when most everyone else gave up, and earning their place among the very best teams in a very decorated program history.
It was Lebo who summed it up in a devastated Carolina locker room. After Davis addressed the team, Lebo looked at the 2022 Tar Heels, assembled before him for the last time. What he said is the definitive last word on whether this season was a success.
“I’m not just a coach,” he said. “I’m also a former player. And I can speak for all those guys when I say I’m so proud of how you represented us, and the way you played Carolina basketball, and this run you took us on.”