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Salute to the Iron Five: RJ Davis

The Tar Heel point guard played the most minutes of anyone in the tournament, and stepped up in huge moments

UNC’s 2021-22 men’s basketball team will be remembered forever thanks to the transformation they underwent in the final third of the season. Hubert Davis leaned into his starting five, forging the “Iron Five” into a cohesive unit that became extremely efficient on offense and collectively tough on defense. This almost hive-mindset took its final form in the NCAA Tournament, when the Tar Heels ran rampant through the East Region, and culminated as the final nail in Coach K’s coffin during the National Semifinal, before falling just one possession short at a National Championship.

Akil discussed Carolina’s player of the tournament Armando Bacot yesterday, but the Iron Five all deserve full praise and greater understanding of their heroics during March Madness. They all took turns starring and struggling throughout UNC’s three weeks in the tournament. Over the next few days, TarHeelBlog will go over the contributions that each of the Iron Five made during this incredible tournament run.

First up, is RJ Davis. The sophomore point guard really took the reins of the team when Carolina made its push in February, and his playmaking and shotmaking abilities pushed the team to another level. Of the Iron Five, he played the most minutes (227 total minutes, an incredible 37.8 mpg average) including all 45 minutes of the overtime game against Baylor. He led the team in assists with 30, 7 better than the next Tar Heel (Leaky Black with 23). Davis averaged 14.7 ppg, 6.5 rpg, and 5 apg against 2.8 TO’s per game. Excellent numbers for a championship-caliber point guard, particularly the rebounding and assists.

RJ was able to flex his playmaking in the opening round. With UNC giving Marquette a deserved (and historic) ass-beating, leading 53-25 at the half, RJ did not have to score much. Instead, he dished out 12 assists against just one turnover. He let Brady Manek and Caleb Love feast on the Golden Eagles, who found themselves teetering on the wrong side of “competitive” or “edgy,” and sliding into downright dirty play. Davis did not have to force himself into scoring. That would come two days later.

The “RJ Davis Game” was the Baylor win in the second round. After Brady Manek’s erroneous ejection and Caleb Love’s foul-out, RJ Davis found himself as the sole provider of competent ball-handling for large stretches of the game. He had his best scoring night of the tournament, piling up 30 points, most of them coming from behind the arc (5-10 3PT) or at the line (9-10 FTs). RJ’s and-1 in overtime sealed the game, and was about as tough and acrobatic a shot as you’re likely to see. The fact that RJ had to lead Carolina through its toughest test of the season with Justin McKoy and Dontrez Styles deputizing for Love and Bacot, makes the degree of difficulty that much more impressive.

RJ’s 14 first-half points against Duke kept Carolina in the fight until Caleb Love transformed into “2nd Half Caleb Love” and sealed the game. The symbiosis between Davis and Bacot was extraordinary, and they were able to get favorable switches on high screens that allowed Davis to cook against bigs that did not want to cover backwards, or sat too deep and gave RJ open jumpers just inside the 3-point line. It’s an easily repeatable pattern, and UNC fans can expect to see RJ run this sort of two-man game next season with whoever is at the 5-spot (hopefully Bacot!).

The 2022 NCAA Tournament was a good indicator of who RJ Davis is, and where he could go next season. He has all the tools to succeed. His playmaking and shooting are top notch, and with another summer of work at the Dean Dome with the team and alumni, we could see an even more seasoned, and more lethal point guard.