A few days after the basketball season ended, the loss still hurts.
For players on the team, “hurts” could be both literal and figurative. Between the smacks that Brady Manek took to the face, the punch to the gut that Puff Johnson took that caused him to heave on the court, the newly-twisted ankle for Caleb Love, and the further twisting of the ankle for Armando Bacot, the Tar Heels gave a new meaning to the term “playing with pain.” They may not have earned the win, but the definitely earned college basketball’s respect.
The team is now home, though, and all of the confetti has fallen. For one last time, it’s time to take a look at the lessons gleaned from the play on the court. This time, though, instead of focusing on one game we’ll look at the six-game run for the Tar Heels and what we may have learned about them overall.
Hubert Davis has taken over
366 days after Roy Williams retired, UNC rolled into New Orleans and won a college basketball classic, taking bragging rights over their rivals in Durham. Two nights later, even in a loss, Hubert Davis was the talk of Twitter with this amazing sideline interview.
The guy who hadn’t shown a ton of energy in press conferences – emotion, yes, but this energy, no – just lit up the screen and gave everyone the first real view of what this team had been seeing both in the huddles and in practice. It’s a marked difference from Dean Smith, Bill Guthridge, and Williams who had passion but would never want to flash that sort of energy in any sort of interview.
It was also the last thing that let fans knew that we are in a new era of Carolina Basketball. All season long we had to accept the fact that Davis was going to use a short rotation of players, use more NBA-style sets that relied on shooting the three, bring in transfers from other programs, and was going to be ridiculously positive even when the team performance wasn’t there. They aren’t major changes, but look at how the team played and reacted compared to the last two deep tournament runs for the Tar Heels and the differences are stark.
Thanks to the increasingly transient nature of college basketball, Davis can turn this program into “his” program quicker than Williams could back in 2003. Players that have realized they won’t see the floor have an option to leave, and with over 1100 players currently in the transfer portal, Davis can quickly find others who fit his style. This doesn’t guarantee success, by any means, and recent history is littered with the failure of teams that rely on short term talent to find NCAA success. That said, Hubert Davis has earned the favor of more fans than he had a year ago (whether they should have in the first place is a separate discussion, as following a legend should earn anyone a tremendous amount of goodwill), and that security should make his job easier as he completes the transformation.
Maybe you can coach effort
The maxim that “effort,” “heart,” and “toughness,” are things you can’t coach is one that is widely accepted, but it’s right to question this saying when you look at the difference between how the team was playing in January and by the end. A team doesn’t magically grow these traits, something has to happen to snap them into a mode where they can take all that gets thrown at them.
In the future, stories of the practices under Hubert will start to leak out, but it’ll be interesting to see what it took from Davis to get his message of effort and toughness to stick. Maybe it was the Pitt loss with the Capel Brothers chirping at the team, maybe it was everything being said online, maybe it was something else, but when Hubert Davis cites after the Marquette game that he wants his teams to be able to take punches and move on, it’s clear this became an emphasis for him.
Carolina’s undoing wasn’t about being punched in the face, either, it was partly about just running out of gas, luck, and health as a better team finally landed a few uppercuts that got them the decision in the end. It’s a remarkable change for a team that had a reputation of being soft, built over multiple seasons, and it’s impossible for it to click without some effort from the coach to instill it in the team.
Live by the Three, Die by the Three
In the five wins during the Tournament, the Tar Heels shot 50/139 or 35.9% from behind the arc. Hidden in that were some ridiculous halves – 45% in the first against Marquette, 46% in the first against Baylor, and nearly 54% in the second half against Duke. The shot either incapacitated their opponent or brought Carolina right back into a game before a team could run away. A three-pointer also led off the overtime game against Baylor and was the decisive shot as Baylor would never lead during the frame.
Against Kansas: 5-23 for 21.7%.
Designing offenses around the three is the norm in basketball now, and Coach Davis has made the necessary adjustment to bring the next generation of talent to Carolina as even big men now are trained to roam the floor and shoot from deep. The problem, of course, is when that shooting goes cold it’s virtually impossible to win a game. When you lose by three and you shoot 21.7% from deep, it’s not that hard to figure out what happened. It’s something that Carolina fans are going to need to get used to, and the hope is that when those off nights happen in the future the team is in a better position to be able to adjust and take what is working. In the NBA, where series are decided by seven games, it’s fine to have one off shooting night. But in the NCAA Tournament, one bad shooting night ends your season.
It’s a challenge that Davis will have to answer in the seasons coming up. One thing fans should be excited about, though, is that based on the adjustments he made in just this season, it should be a challenge he’s up for.