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The Dean’s List: On Hubert Davis, expectations, and patience

The former assistant coach has had some massive shoes to fill, but more time is needed before we know if they fit.

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Wake Forest Nell Redmond-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to The Dean’s List! The weekly segment that brings readers hot takes, freezing cold takes, and everything in between from the world of Carolina athletics.

If we are looking at things through the lens of 2011, being the head coach of the North Carolina Tar Heels is a tremendously difficult job. Expectations are sky-high, boosters are looking at you through a microscope, national media is talking about the team any chance they get, and this is all without getting into the actual basketball elements. It may seem easy looking at things from the outside, but getting a bunch of former elite high school players to play team basketball and realize they’re not “the guy” anymore doesn’t always go smoothly (see Duke’s Jalen Johnson from last season). As fans, we can be eager, short-fused, and overall want satisfaction immediately, or we’re ready to move onto the next guy that could bring us a national championship.

In 2021, however, it’s a whole new ball game. Hubert Davis was brave enough to take the head coaching job formerly owned by a Hall of Fame coach, roughly four years removed from a NCAA investigation, in the middle of a pandemic, and yes, following two sub-optimal seasons for the Tar Heels. Of course I use the term “brave” very liberally, because let’s be honest: Davis never thought twice about taking this job. His passion for the Tar Heels runs as deep as Roy Williams’ suit and tie closet. Now that he has the job, however, he is front and center whenever the Heels are anything less than successful, and unfortunately he is already getting some sharp criticism from fans.

One source of the criticism comes from his roster. Hubert Davis currently has four McDonald’s All-Americans on his roster, and one super senior that had a very good tenure with Oklahoma. On paper, it’s easy to look at this and wonder why he would lose games against #6 Purdue, #17 Tennessee (the one that people are REALLY mad about), and fail to blow out Brown, Charleston, Loyola, and UNC Asheville. Sure, they won the latter games in double digits, but let’s be honest: fans want 20+ point victories and biscuits. The thing is, though, that perception isn’t always reality, and the fact of the matter is that this team is simply a work in progress.

The most important detail in the 2021-22 season that can’t go overlooked is that every player on the roster had a completely different head coach last season, whether they are a transfer or not. Yes, Hubert Davis stated that he was keeping some of Carolina’s principles that have been there since Dean Smith, but that doesn’t change the fact that he comes with a different scheme, a different personality, and if we’re being honest, a different mindset. Roy Williams didn’t play in the NBA, he wasn’t a three-point sharpshooter, and most importantly, he was never going to be willing to play a one-in-four-out scheme that helps spread the floor. Hubert Davis has done this, and to this point UNC has done really well on the offensive side of the ball. Has it been perfect? no, with the most obvious blemish being the turnovers, but statistically they have come a long way from the previous two seasons, and I think this team could be really sharp offensively by March.

The elephant in the room, of course, is Hubert Davis’ defense. Here’s the thing: I couldn’t possibly tell you whether the issue is a scheme problem, but what I can tell you is that right now the Heels aren’t playing team basketball on that side of the floor. Scheme is important, but no scheme works without players communicating with one another, playing with high levels of pride and aggression, and in general, just playing smart. Defense is an effort game, while offense is that but with a skill element thrown in. If UNC finds a way to start playing team basketball and they still struggle on the defensive side of the ball, then reasonably we can start questioning Davis’ ideas. Right now, though, the name of the game is waiting for these guys to finally gel and play as a unit.

The really interesting thing about what’s happened over the last couple of weeks is that the loss to Purdue didn’t produce a lot of negativity towards the team, but the loss to Tennessee and the win against UNC Asheville did. I’ll admit it: I too have been frustrated, but I have seen people say that Wes Miller was the better coaching choice, and are already turning their backs on Hubert Davis. Heck, I’ve seen people say that Roy Williams did better in his first year as head coach. Fact check: Williams lost to seven unranked teams, and went on an eight-game skid in the middle of the season to close out his 1988-89 campaign with a 19-12 record, and was sub-.500 in conference play. I’d say things turned out pretty well for him after that, wouldn’t you?

Look, I’m not here to convince anybody that Hubert Davis is going to be a Hall of Fame head coach, or even just a run-of-the-mill solid coach. What I am saying is that Carolina is currently 4-2, with two losses against top 25 opponents, and to this point they have not had the head-scratching loss against an inferior opponent yet. We have to come to terms with the fact that two things can be true about this team: 1.) Hubert Davis was set up with the best possible roster to be successful in his first season as head coach, and 2.) this team could fail to have the season we’re hoping for, and that’s ok. Success takes time, trial and error, and most importantly: it takes patience.

Also yourself a favor: forget Matt Doherty ever happened. I could write a whole separate article about how this is a completely different situation in every way possible. Let’s remember that Doherty was forced to either resign or be fired due to an “irreparable rift” with his players. He also admitted during a Carolina Insider podcast episode that he changed just about everything he could within the program just because he could and not because it should’ve been changed, right down to nit-picky administrative stuff. It’s hard to replicate that situation, and so far Hubert Davis hasn’t done it, so it may be time to just let it go.

Hubert Davis may or may not have been the best person for the job, but what we do know is that Carolina blue flows through his veins perhaps just as much as it does for Roy Williams. Does that equate to success? Absolutely not. However, it is an excellent reason to exercise patience and understanding in his first year as head coach. Nobody that cares about the program this much will ever let it sink into mediocrity without giving their best effort possible. If he fails, he fails, but at the end of the day, his best shot is all you can ask for.