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THB Roundtable: Thoughts on our new coach

The THB staff gives our reactions to Hubert Davis being the new face of the Tar Heels, one week later

NCAA Men’s Final Four - Practice Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

It’s now been 10 days since Hubert Davis was announced as the next head coach of the UNC Tar Heels, and while he’s been active — attracting Justin McKoy from Charlottesville to Chapel Hill and offering former Creighton forward Christian Bishop and former Oklahoma forward Brady Manek — all the emotion and frenzy that accompanied that first weekend of April seem to have simmered down. I don’t think a lot of the staff really got to express how they were feeling about the future, though we’ve alluded to it here and there, so I thought it’d be nice to have a quick roundtable with some of us answering a few questions about what we’ve felt about this hire and its earliest returns. Even though we wrote these questions and answers a week ago, I think now is an excellent time to reflect on them, as we continue to wonder where we’ll go from here.

What did you think of the hire when it first became apparent who UNC was going to go with, and what do you think now that we’ve seen Coach Davis speak a couple of times?

Evan: My concern was when Roy Williams said, “I didn’t push the right buttons” when speaking about coaching the team the last two seasons. Hubert Davis was a part of the staff. What was his level of involvement in “pushing the buttons.” The outside will never know the inside of the locker room, and it is clear that Williams was the undisputed leader of the program. After hearing his interview on ESPN and introduction press conference, it is clear that he is passionate about the program and motivated to do a good job. I was ready to suit up after the end of his press conference at the Smith Center. But once the emotions cooled down, there was not much offered by Davis in what will be different next year outside some general statements about doing it his own way. Davis mentioned that the foundation of how Carolina plays basketball is strong and will remain the same, which is (probably) true. Maybe a new lead voice is the only thing that needs to change.

Al: I had thoughts prior to the announcement specifically because I had my heart set on someone else when we went through this in football. Knowing from the start the signs were pointing to a family hire, I didn’t want to dream about someone and then have to “talk myself up” on someone. Thus, once it was announced it was Hubert, I was already able to see why he was hired without hearing him speak. I’m old enough to remember him on College Gameday, and once the news broke and all of the alumni came out to praise the choice, I was on board. Then the Press Conference got me hyped. As Jake described, there was a passion and energy that Roy was missing the last couple of years, and Davis brings that back. We knew he was going to win the press conference, and I’m good with how it went down. It at least bought him some patiences for sure.

McKay: Honestly, I was disappointed. I thought that without a clear Bill Guthridge on staff, or another Roy Williams head coaching another Power 5 program, Bubba would be forced to go outside the family to make this hire, something he said he would consider. This hire will be the most important of Bubba’s career. If he got it wrong, we’d probably have a new athletic director making the next hire.

With the rumors surrounding Brad Stevens and Mark Few, I was really excited that we could be in for one of those guys, either one I’d be happy with. With a roster that may still need some re-recruiting and a transfer portal just waiting to be tapped, it didn’t make sense that a hire was taking so long if we weren’t getting Stevens or Few. When the initial social media announcements came out on national championship Monday, I was bummed that it definitely wasn’t going to be Few. I think he was disappointed as well, and that’s why Baylor beat the wheels off Gonzaga.

Now that I’ve seen Hubert’s opening press conference? I’m sold. It was on par with Bill Pullman’s speech in “Independence Day.” Hubert could be a general in the Army, the CEO of Coca-Cola, or the head coach of UNC basketball, I’m ready to go to the mat for him.

Brandon: When it became more and more apparent who they were going to go with I was honestly a little disappointed at first. I felt like this was a golden opportunity to shake things up within the program and maybe try to wrangle in someone like Mark Few. Once the news was officially announced I did a lot of talking myself into this being a good hire, and I think after hearing Davis speak a few times since then I am sold. I still have a lot of questions about what kind of head coach he will be from a pure basketball perspective, but this is also a guy that doesn’t really know what failure is. I think we’ll be pleasantly surprised by how things turn out in the near future.

Jake: I vacillated between “disaster”, “incestuous”, and “safe”. We all largely expected it, but Roy’s assistants just haven’t really found the success UNC demands, and the Carolina “family” approach has extremely mixed results in revenue sports. I mean, Torbush (as a staff extension), Bunting, Guthridge (after Dean’s gift of a ‘98 squad), and Doherty are just as demoralizing as Williams was inspiring. Three of those four guys were genuinely loved as human beings in their head coach roles, but being a nice guy doesn’t guarantee titles.

Now? At a minimum, I don’t think the program will crater like 2000-2003. At best, they’ll get off the knife’s edge the program is currently balancing on and maintain relevancy (if not season-to-season dominance). He’s saying all the right things, clearly has a vision, and has shown a understated savagery that I personally think the program needs. So, I’ll stay cautiously optimistic. This has a chance to succeed. And truthfully, there just weren’t many options so this “makes sense”.

Akil: I think I was resigned to it, and not necessarily in a bad way — the best names in college basketball are still going to be out there if and when UNC is looking for its next coach, and I guess I figured Roy Williams deserves the last part of his legacy to be a hire that exemplifies the family that he has so consistently advertised and maintained for the past almost two decades. It’s scary to go from a head coach with one of the longest careers in college basketball to one who has headed up exactly 0 games, but Coach Davis knows the program and what it takes to be a coach in Chapel Hill.

I think we can all agree that Davis’ passion was forceful in the best ways, and I cannot imagine players not responding to him (and the reactions from players present and former speak to that). I think it’s totally justifiable to be more optimistic about him just based on how he’s talked about the job. His speeches also raised a couple of questions for me, though: First, I’m not sure I love his idea that you can only coach Carolina (including as an assistant) if you’ve played there — can’t a family be joined later in life? Second, I hope he’s being figurative about calling coaching basketball “missionary work.” Christianity is always in the background of American sports, and that’s fine, I guess, but that’s all it should be.

Which process did you feel worse about: the basketball hiring of Hubert Davis or the football hiring of Mack Brown?

Evan: I went to a Raleigh watering hole for trivia the night Mack Brown was hired. At least three trivia teams were named with something making fun of UNC’s hire. Who is laughing now? I was much more skeptical about the Brown hire than Davis. It seems as though every Carolina fan had Davis on a short list of potential hires, so it was not a surprise. You had a chance to mentally work through the pros and cons of that short list with your UNC group chats, and there were certainly a lot of pros with Davis.

Al: “Feel worse” is so subjective but I guess I felt “worse” about the Mack Brown process if only because it did feel more like we were settling than we did with Hubert. It took a few hires and Mack speaking for me to feel better about it. With Hubert, if you really think about the timeline here the process didn’t take five days, it was started the moment Carolina came back from Indianapolis. Bubba had to hire someone quickly for multiple reasons, but between the time he took and how locked down the process was, I can’t help but to feel good because I know this was thought out.

McKay: I was puzzled and worried by the Mack Brown hire, but after his opening press conference, I was a lot more confident. He spoke to me, as I’m sure he spoke to a lot of weary fans and curious recruits. I really liked his bit about there not being any such thing as an age or generation gap, only communication gaps. You just have to learn how to talk to kids in a way they can relate to, then you can get them to do the things you want them to do. It sounded like Roy didn’t know how to do that anymore, and fair play to him, it’s hard. My nephews and nieces might as well be talking Martian to me sometimes. Hopefully, hearing a familiar message about the Carolina family in a new way, Hubert’s way, will resonate with today’s youth. And hopefully, whatever they were serving at the ESPN cafeteria works out for Hubert the way it did for Mack, goodness gracious!

Brandon: The football situation definitely made me a bit more nervous than the basketball situation. Larry Fedora had left a crater behind when he left the program, and truly it was going to take a guy that really knew what he was doing to fix everything. Mack Brown was really the only right answer, and he has done a masterful job of bringing Carolina football into the national spotlight. With the Hubert Davis hire, I feel like the process of finding a coach lasted all of two seconds. There wasn’t a lot of time to feel anything before Bubba Cunningham hired his guy.

Jake: I was one of the few who loved Mack’s hiring, so it’s impossible for me to feel “better” about this. The two programs were/are in such different states, it’s not a fair comparison. UNC Football couldn’t get any worse. UNC basketball risks turning into Indiana or UCLA (a return to the Final Four as an 11-seed doesn’t sway me on their lack of relevance). From a pure basketball perspective, only Brad Stevens would have made me “comfortable”.

However, as information comes out about the process, I don’t think this was as rushed as I initially feared.

Akil: Oh, easily Mack. The worst-case scenario with this hire was that Roy Williams had a hand-picked successor and used all the pull he had with Bubba Cunningham to make it official — disappointing but at least that’s a recommendation with some heft to it. It also wasn’t likely, because Bubba isn’t the kind of AD to have his arm twisted like that, and everything we know a week and change later supports this idea. The worst-case scenario with Mack Brown, which I’m still not convinced didn’t happen, was that UNC was catering to older alumni and donors who wanted to relive their glory days at the expense of the actual product on the field while the university tried to recoup its losses from Larry Fedora’s buyout. I still think it’s possible that Bubba got lucky with Mack hiring two of the best coordinators in football and being readier for the job than we could’ve expected. We can only hope he strikes gold twice.

What are you most looking forward to seeing from Coach Davis in his first year as the Tar Heel head man?

Evan: I am looking forward to what will be different under Davis. Will the lineup start to evolve to something more like how the NBA is played? Will the career three-point percentage leader for UNC put some more emphasis on the three? With the revolving door of point guards stopping next year, there is cautious optimism about the ceiling of the 2021-22 team.

Al: His coaching style, which is a little different than what Evan said. Roy famously didn’t let his assistants do much coaching, but Davis comes with the Dean Smith playing background as well as several NBA Coaches. Will he be reserved as Dean or as demonstrative as Roy? Does he use his timeouts more? Does he follow the path where you coach differently in different months to build for March or does he play to win like every game is March. It’ll be exciting to see his spin on coaching.

McKay: What is his philosophy for winning games. He said that the Carolina way was proven, and he’s correct. But it seems to work best when you have upperclassmen with years of experience running the system. If we’re not able to get kids to stay on campus for more than two years, do we have to simplify it? And do we sacrifice rebounding for shooting? Create more open threes instead of looking to the post first? I think after all of my years watching Carolina basketball, I know what it should look like, so what will make me go, “Hold on, what’s that?!” the first time at my TV?

Brandon: One common thing that happens in professional sports is that when a new coach is hired, players tend to play with renewed energy and determination. How long that lasts fluctuates quite a bit, but I am definitely looking forward to seeing how each player improves under Coach Davis the most. Specifically, I am extremely interested in seeing how Caleb Love develops his game under a new head coach. I get a feeling from him that his confidence was his biggest issue last season, so if Davis can help him gain said confidence, I think we’re going to see a massive sophomore leap transpire.

Jake: Less “system” coaching and more “talent” coaching. Multiple defenses to keep an opponent uncomfortable, while tweaking the Carolina Break to better use the talent that exists instead of forcing the talent to adapt to the system. Also hope to see the return of a program-wide swagger that’s been missing for the better part of this century. Basically, I’d like to see a true merging of Dean’s and Roy’s philosophies. Both methods worked (and had their criticisms), but Hubert may be the only person on the planet who bring both together.

Akil: I’m very interested to see how he manages the roster, both in-game and over the course of the season. I certainly hope that just because he represents some continuity from the previous regime he’s not going to maintain previous years’ seniority, and allows for a totally fresh start, but is he going to be able to, if necessary, bench a two-year starter? And as far as in-game goes, how amenable is he going to be to small (not necessarily stretchy!) power forwards, or going small for the majority of a game in a way that’s matchup-dependent rather than just talent-dependent, which is when we saw it with Coach Williams?

What worries you most about the immediate and/or long-term future with Hubert Davis as head coach?

Evan: By all reports, Davis has been in some of living rooms of the big name recruits, but he was not the closer. Can he recruit at the same level that is expected of UNC? Or, with all the talk about the “changing landscape of college basketball,” will Carolina under Davis start to adjust its approach to recruiting? It is obvious that stability at point guard helps the program. How can Davis create a contingency for injuries (2019-20 season) and youth (2020-21 season) at the position? One other point: at 50, Davis is at the age that falls in the sweet spot for traditional college coaches. But what about his lack of experience as a head coach? Should the growing pains have come earlier in his career? Too late to worry about those hypotheticals now. The easiest rebuttal to that argument is the career trajectory of three of the last four UNC coaches.

Al: All of the adjustments that’ll be needed and soon. Between the one time transfer rule, NIL, and the likely elimination of the one and done, this process that Hubert witnessed is going to be radically different. In that sense, maybe it’s not a bad thing that he hasn’t been the closer on the trail since you’ll need to be a different type of recruiter. You also worry that he goes too hard for players like him, those who need to prove themselves, instead of the occasional star he played with. It’s all unknown, and if rumors are true that he’s going to bring on at least one former head coach to the bench, there’s a worry his voice will get muddled quickly.

McKay: My biggest worry is that next season, we have fans back in the stands and UNC loses two of the first five games, or something like that. I don’t want there to be restlessness or panic, and then have that transmit to the players. It could snowball.

I’m also worried about Coach K retiring next season, and Duke bringing in Brad Stevens. If he has immediate success, and reaches a higher level than Hubert, that’ll bring on even more unwanted pressure.

Brandon: My biggest concern is that we see more of the same thing from Hubert Davis that we did Roy Williams. I feel bad saying that, because clearly what Roy Williams did throughout his career worked and worked very well. However, we also have to be real with ourselves and admit that the college game has indeed changed a lot to keep up with the NBA game. I know that Davis knows something has to give when it comes to Williams’ previous system, and I look forward to seeing what new ideas he brings to the table.

Jake: Immediate? How does the current roster fit his vision? The staff just staved off a mass exodus, but some of these players may find themselves on the outside looking in if there are too many changes. Hubert has been adamant in the past 72 hours [ed: remember this was a week ago] that they have to get better shooters and players. (His words, not mine). So, what does that do for roster continuity in the next 1-2 seasons?

Long term? Can his passion and belief in all things “Carolina” really be sold to the current generation of players. The age-old “we” vs “me” problem. It seems cliché, but it has torn at the fabric of the program for the past three years, and finding that balance of talent and experience proved elusive. Can Hubert adjust? Does he keep chasing top-25 talent or does he focus on the 30-70 range for development and stability?

Akil: I’m with Brandon; I’ve said for a few years that the only person who could win today playing Roy Williams basketball is Roy Williams, so I don’t really want to see Coach Davis try to replicate it. We know he’ll play fast, with a lot of freelance, and stress the boards, but that leaves a lot of room for improvization, so I hope (and think) we see that. But other than that, I worry about what happens if and when Davis’ obvious passion for assembling the kind of staff and team that feels like a marriage from every era of Carolina Basketball he wants to represent doesn’t seamlessly fit together. How will he deal with having to make his own mark on the family to make it work? And I can’t not say that after this past year, a part of me is worried about how a certain subsection of the fanbase is going to take to a Black coach who doesn’t immediately deliver perfection.

And finally, what’s the thing you’re most sure of about the ‘21-’22 season given all the change we’re seeing and will continue to see?

Evan: I am sure that Davis will bring the passionate and excitement needed to connect with his team. In his introductory press conference, he spoke about how he was unable to connect with the players like he did in years past. When things get back to normal, Davis will provide the spark that these players need to start enjoying basketball again.

Al: The Family aspect of UNC will continue, and that is NOT a small thing. As the haze of Covid lifts, we’ll see alumni come back to campus to play pickup with whomever is around, that alone will help gel the new team in a way they couldn’t last season. Late Night with Hubert will happen, and it’ll be paired with a football team that has a chance to do great things, and the youth that Hubert brings with his new staff should create a different atmosphere that night. I’m also sure his first game in the Smith Center will see a loud ovation for him when his name is said over the PA for the first time. All that really gets me excited about next season.

McKay: When Walker Kessler takes an ill-advised three-pointer during a conference game, and Hubert takes him out to give him some instruction with the game continuing behind him “Ol’ Roy” style, the comments section of Tar Heel Blog’s Game Threads will be calm and not at all offensive. [ed: womp womp.]

Brandon: The most guaranteed thing for the 2021-22 season will be the energy that players, coaches, and fans bring back to the Dean Smith Center. This has been a long 12+ months, and now that it’s looking more and more likely that we will be able to return to some level of normalcy by November, it’s exciting to think about the first time we can all reunite in that building. I feel sorry for whoever the first opponent will be, because they will likely leave with busted ear drums and crushed spirits.

Jake: I’ll be “that” guy. The football team will have an equal or better chance than the basketball program of making the Final Four. The basketball team will be better, but they have too many obstacles to compete for a title. A new coach and just one player who has been part of a NCAA Tournament win (Leaky Black) deserves a healthy dose of expectation management.

Plus, the football team should be really, freaking good.

Akil: I don’t know what next year’s lineup is going to look like, and I don’t know what the basketball is going to look like, and I don’t know what this team’s ceiling is going to be. But I know that, based on the stellar recruiting job the prior UNC staff pulled to stave off a max exodus, the unanimously pleased reactions of former players, including several who you wouldn’t blame for having not unequivocally positive opinions about their UNC coaching, and the fact that the entire UNC internet seems ready to run through several brick walls for Hubert Davis already, we are not going to see an ounce of quit in the 2021-22 Tar Heels, and probably won’t as long as Davis is in charge. Combined with college life promising to return to normal next year, and I’m excited to see a rejuvenated team and a rejuvenated sport.