It’s always tough to measure the importance of a player to his team’s success. When looking at the Iron Five that carried UNC to a national title game, each member contributed something vital to the team’s success: Armando Bacot was a force down low, Leaky Black locked down the opposing team’s best player, Brady Manek became a matchup nightmare, and Caleb Love consistently delivered big shots. Despite the many ways in which those guys contributed, I believe there is one player that, both then and now, means more to the team than anyone: RJ Davis.
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After dropping 12 assists in a convincing first round win over Marquette, Davis put the team on his back against Baylor. The disqualification of both Manek and Love applied even more pressure to Davis, who already had the hot hand. It felt like the Heels were limping to the finish line until overtime allowed the guys to reset. An early three from Dontrez Styles got everyone settled and Davis virtually sealed the game with a super tough and-one finish. The bucket capped off an incredible performance for Davis in which he notched 30 points, 6 assists, and 5 rebounds.
Davis was obviously instrumental in the Tar Heels’ entire tournament run. He made some huge plays against Duke and even recorded a double-double in the championship. However, if you followed Carolina all season, it probably didn’t come as much of a shock. Averaging 13.5 points, 3.6 assists, and 4.3 rebounds, Davis was the steadiest player on the roster. Although it took the team while to put it all together, he was never the problem.
In fact, Davis was arguably the solution. Multiple players pointed out that declaring Davis the exclusive ball-handler in February helped shift the trajectory of the season. Not only did it give him more opportunities to create for his teammates, but it also allowed Love to step away from the ball and focus more on getting to his spots as a scorer. The Love-Davis duo has always worked well together, but establishing clearly defined roles caused them to truly blossom.
Coincidentally, this tweak from Hubert Davis occurred right before the Heels caught fire. With RJ running the show, the Heels won 13 of their final 16 games and, despite being an 8 seed in the tournament, genuinely looked like one of the best teams in the country. Clearly, great things happen when the ball is in Davis’s hands. While his play-making ability and tenacity are indications of that, his propensity for taking care of the ball is what got him in that position.
For the majority of the season, turnovers were a major issue for Carolina. Despite this, Davis never recorded more than 4 turnovers in a game. On top of that, he only had 4 such games, and just one of those came after the aforementioned switch occurred. In fact, he averaged 1.6 turnovers from February on, better than his season average of 1.9. Of course, some of this can be attributed to the overall groove the team found itself in, but it still speaks to the headiness and control that Davis plays with.
When looking ahead to next season, I expect more of the same from Davis. The Tar Heels discovered their identity down the final stretch of last year, and that starts with Davis facilitating the offense. Losing Manek hurts, but with Love, Bacot, and Black all returning, there shouldn’t be too much of an adjustment. With another offseason to work on his game and a cast of capable scorers around him, Davis has a chance to be the most dangerous point guard in the country.