Since 2004, Carolina basketball has been one of the more reliable, somewhat predictable teams in the entire athletic program. It’s a weird thing to say, because there are multiple sports that have had a lot of success, but Roy Williams made sure that if nothing else, we as fans had confidence that something good could happen if he was able to get through to his guys and have them playing to their full potential by March. Obviously success didn’t always find the Tar Heels, but there’s something to be said about a fairly consistent level of optimism each season. Or maybe I’m the only one who has felt like that? It’s unclear.
This season, however, is a whole new ball game. Hubert Davis is now the head coach for the Tar Heels, and a decent amount of the roster was shaken up from last season. Day’Ron Sharpe, Walker Kessler, Garrison Brooks, Sterling Manley, Andrew Platek, and K.J. Smith are all gone. In their place, Hubert Davis brought in transfers Brady Manek, Dawson Garcia, and Justin McKoy alongside freshmen D’Marco Dunn and Dontrez Styles. What’s really unique about these new players, however, isn’t just that they are new: they are apart of a bigger, brand new picture that Davis is trying to paint with this program. Out is Roy Williams’ system (kind of), and in its place is a more modern Hubert Davis scheme that some fans have been dying to see for years.
So, with all of this change, how does that affect our expectations of this team? Simply put: it makes things rather unpredictable. Regardless, I will continue my annual tradition of sharing what I think are the best-case and worst-case scenarios for the 2021-22 season. It wouldn’t shock me if I was completely off of the mark in either a really good or really bad way, but we’re going to give this a shot. Let’s get started.
Let’s be honest: coaching is really, really hard. Regardless of what some people like to think, there are no college coaches, or really even professional coaches, that are able to “just roll the ball out and win games” like people accused Roy Williams of doing. If it were that easy, the Tar Heels would have as many championships as the Los Angeles Lakers rather than the seven championships they currently have. With that said, Hubert Davis has some massive shoes to fill, and it could be that his feet don’t grow by the time this season is over.
In all fairness, Hubert Davis had one of the greatest coaches in college basketball history as a mentor, and is still able to use said mentor throughout the season. However, think about everything that happens during live games: deciding when to call timeouts, deciding who is hot and needs to stay in, who is struggling and needs to go to the bench, who shouldn’t be on the floor with each other, situational defense, time management, etc. There’s a lot that Davis is going to have to trust his gut on, and it’s unrealistic to expect him to nail every decision he makes. Because of this, there are bound to be decisions made that cost the Heels games, but the question is how many? We don’t know the answer, and we won’t really know until the season starts.
Coaching aside, this team has a lot of new pieces that may or may not gel together by March. While I don’t think UNC could’ve asked for better transfers to join the program, there’s also a non-zero chance that they will mix with tenured players like oil and water. Also, I have way more questions about the defensive side of the ball than I do the offensive side. I can rattle off every player on the roster that could have excellent seasons scoring the ball, and there’s quite a few of them, but there are a number of question marks when it comes to defense. There’s a lot up in the air with what is technically a rebuild season for the Tar Heels, so by March we could look back at everything and think to ourselves, “There were glimpses of some good things, but there’s a lot of work to be done.”
Worst-case scenario: Finishing in the middle of the ACC, and missing the NCAA tournament.
Despite all of the questions that I have for this team, I do think the ceiling could be a lot higher than national analysts think. Armando Bacot, who was the star of last year’s team, returned for his junior campaign and will play in a system that allows him more space in the paint. Caleb Love is coming off of a sub-optimal freshman season, but showed a lot of improvement during Late Night. Also, it’s worth noting that he is another player that thrives in space, so he will also benefit from only having one big in the paint. Brady Manek and Dawson Garcia were two of the better players in their respective conferences, with Garcia earning Big East All-Freshman Team honors. Kerwin Walton is still on the team, and perhaps that’s all I need to say. I could keep going, but the point I’m trying to make is: this is a really good roster for Hubert Davis’ first year as head coach.
Truth be told, Davis could do a lot of good things with this roster. If everyone is shooting to the best of their ability, everyone latches onto both new and old principles, and he is dynamite in his decision-making, I see no reason why we aren’t talking about this team finishing near the top of the ACC, if not the very top. The biggest threat I see to them accomplishing that is Florida State, because well...we all know Duke isn’t going to do it, despite what some media and analysts think.
As far as the national stage goes, I think it becomes harder and harder to think that this team could pull off a miracle run to the Final Four. Gonzaga, Texas, Michigan, and Baylor are teams that wouldn’t surprise me if they made it to the final weekend, with a number of other teams that could, but I don’t have enough faith yet to say for sure. Could the Tar Heels pull it off? If the Atlanta Braves taught us anything a couple of nights ago, yes. Absolutely. However, I can’t bring myself to set the bar that high just yet. This team could be really good, but veteran teams/coaches are really hard to beat in the month of March. Still, we can all dream.
Best-case scenario: 1st in the ACC, and make it to the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament.