We all thought it was an April Fool’s joke.
On April 1st, 2021, Hall of Fame coach and three-time national champion Roy Williams announced that he was retiring. It felt like a decision that was completely out of the blue, and if I’m being honest, it felt like someone in the athletics department was pulling the worst prank ever. At first hours went by, and there was no sign that it was a joke. Then the press conference happened, and all I could do was watch with a feeling of emptiness in my chest. I had never known a world of covering Carolina athletics that didn’t involve Coach Williams, and now it was all over. I’ll be honest with all of you: I was terrified of what was to come, because the gravy train of Dean Smith, Bill Guthridge, and Roy Williams felt like it had to end any year now. April 1st felt like the time has finally come.
Four days later, it was announced that Hubert Davis would be the new head coach of Carolina basketball. When I heard the announcement, I’d be lying if I said that I was surprised. All of the players loved Davis, and it seemed like he had a way of getting through to them that was just special. I had a hard time believing that Roy Williams wouldn’t have input in who AD Bubba Cunningham hired, and this felt like his fingerprints were all over it. Listening to Davis speak during the introduction press conference, I could tell that maybe the sky hadn’t fallen after all. What has always been a Carolina blue sky has stayed that color, but the clouds in the sky were just a little different. Maybe this was the right decision, and maybe...just maybe...it would eventually pay off.
Boy, we didn’t know what we were in for.
There were a number of things that Hubert Davis did differently from Roy Williams that felt like they would pay off more in the long term than they would the short term. First, while he wanted to keep some of the traditional Carolina principles (focus on the boards, playing fast, Etc.), he also wanted the team to be more perimeter-focused. At the time that was hard to wrap my brain around — Caleb Love, RJ Davis, and Kerwin Walton were the only players on the team that were proven shooters, but even with that said Davis and Love weren’t excelling at it. This is why Davis brought in Brady Manek and Dawson Garcia, with Manek being the best transfer that the Heels could’ve asked for. He finished the season making 40.3% of his three-point attempts, which was a career-best. Manek, Love, and Davis ended up making for a lethal trio from deep, and as the season progressed they became harder and harder to stop.
The second notable change that Davis made was playing a smaller rotation. Despite having freshmen Dontrez Styles and D’Marco Dunn on the team, along with solid bench players from the season prior, Davis coached with a “win now” mentality and played only the guys that gave their best effort on defense, and also contributed on offense. Sure, we saw appearances from Styles, Dunn, and Puff Johnson, but after Garcia left the team, a lot of the weight was put on the shoulders of the starting five. I’ve always loathed Coach K’s willingness in the past to play a seven-man rotation, but while I hate to admit it...it worked for Davis. Guys were beat up, sure, but what was incredible is that they had enough energy to make it all the way to the final game of the NCAA basketball season. We spend a lot of time thinking that these guys are going to flame out if they pay too many minutes, and Davis got high-quality play out of five guys that played over 30 minutes per game. I had never seen anything like it.
I could go into a few other changes that surprised me, but the overall point is that just about everything Davis did worked. It’s silly to look at this season in hindsight, because fans did not always have an abundance of patience for this team. In their first 12 games, UNC lost against Purdue, Tennessee, and Kentucky, all of whom were ranked in the AP top 25. It was so early in the season that to outside observers, it just felt like a team that wasn’t quite ready for the spotlight was still figuring things out. Needless to say, the losses against Notre Dame, Miami, and Wake Forest did little to inspire more confidence, and really piled on to UNC fans’ pessimism. Not long after the loss against Duke, the game against Pitt happened...and that’s when a switch flipped.
Since going 18-8 to open the season, the Heels proceeded to go 11-2 for the rest of the season. They finished the regular season with an impressive win against Duke in Cameron Indoor Stadium, and took down Virginia in the ACC Tournament before losing to the eventual ACC champions, Virginia Tech. Despite losing to the Hokies, the win over the Blue Devils punched their ticket to the Big Dance, and my goodness did they dance. The Heels took down 9-seed Marquette, 1-seed Baylor, 4-seed UCLA, and 15-seed Saint Peter’s to earn a trip to the Final Four. Nobody in their right minds thought that this would happen in Davis’ very first season, but it felt like everything was set up for Duke to ruin the Heels’ improbable run.
What happened instead was Caleb Love shoving a dagger into the Blue Devils, and the Heels survived to make it to the national championship game against Kansas. Seeing Hubert Davis talk to the reporter during the game confirmed everything that I felt like I learned about him throughout the season: he is a very passionate, very competitive coach that not only loves his players, but loves the University of North Carolina. He was having fun, and he didn’t appear mad at the team for literally anything that happened during the game to that point...he was just taking in the moment. His fiery passion is exactly what the program needed, and it was gushing out of him during the biggest game of his extremely short head coaching career.
Eventually the Heels would fall to the Jayhawks 72-69, but it had to be one of the least painful national championship losses that I can remember. Think about it: a first-year head coach was four points away from winning it all during a season that many people counted this team out. Armando Bacot could’ve been healthier, Brady Manek’s nose could’ve been less beaten up, or Love and Davis could’ve been a tiny bit more efficient shooting the basketball, and we would still be celebrating one of the most incredible national championship wins in school history.
The 2021-22 Tar Heels were a very talented group, but let’s be honest: they do not get this far without Hubert Davis. It is because of him that they kept fighting, it is because of him that the team bought into what he was selling, and it is because of him that Carolina basketball has gained new life. We don’t have to worry anymore about the future of Carolina basketball, because things couldn’t possibly be in better hands. Roy Williams’ best coaching job of his life was getting Hubert Davis ready for this moment, just as Dean Smith’s best job was getting Williams ready for his. Coaching isn’t about what you achieved for yourself, but it’s about how you set everyone else up around you for success.
Now it is Hubert Davis’ turn to set the Heels up for success, and so far he’s doing a damn good job.