There’s really no way to sugar coat how disappointing this season is shaping up to be. Going into the 2022-23 season, we all expected this to be a repeat of 2016-17: a team that had been at the edge of claiming a title only to have it taken away from them, and the motivated starters that could come back did to lead a new march to an eventual championship. It was the only thing missing from last season’s magical ride.
The actual story of the season has been more like a bad repeat of last season: disappointing losses, frustrating results game after game, basketballs hitting iron more than going through the net, and living life on the NCAA bubble. Last year, the Tar Heels had a tough loss and with five games left, they looked unlikely to make the field. They would go 5-0, add another win in the ACC Tournament, and we know the rest. They’ll likely have to do that again this year.
That Carolina is in this position has naturally brought out every level of criticism that you can think of, and of it, a lot has been leveled at second year coach Hubert Davis. While the head coach will be the first one to accept blame for when a team fails to meet expectations-he’s got the mix of Dean Smith and Roy Williams in him after all-when you look at the breakdown of things, he really should be low on the list of reasons. This has been hinted at this before, and now that the Tar Heels are on the precipice of missing the tournament, it’s worth digging deeper.
Let’s start with a biggie:
These, mostly, aren’t his players
Four of the starting five were recruited by Roy Williams. Yes, Davis had a hand in their coaching and recruitment as an assistant but there’s a huge difference when you’re the man in the main chair. R.J Davis, Caleb Love, Leaky Black, and Armando Bacot all came in under the previous administration-and both Bacot and Black spent at least half of their college careers being taught by Williams.
The fact is that Davis has shown that he wants to change up how Carolina plays into a more NBA-Style offense, but when the majority of the people on the floor are recruited for a different type, there’s only so much that both can do meet in the middle. If last year was about both sides finding that common ground, this year has been a delicate dance of acknowledging that everyone came back to try and replicate that success. If you succeeded playing the way that you did, why are you going to change? That goes both for players and coach.
The fact that Hubert was a longtime assistant shouldn’t be discounted here. After five years of Leaky Black, four years of Armando Bacot, and three years of RJ Davis and Caleb Love, these guys are who they are and he has to try to do the best that he can with them.
“Ah” you say, “so why didn’t he bench them sooner when they weren’t performing?” Well that gets us to the next point
When you sell loyalty, you accept the risks
Hubert Davis has been huge at selling the Carolina Family aspect of UNC, even harder than Roy Williams to a certain extent thanks to his loading of the bench with nothing but UNC alums, and making sure there are always seats for prominent UNC alumni for the camera to find. It’s a message that does mean something coming from a former player like Davis as opposed to someone who was a coach like Williams, and it’s no doubt a big part of his pitch in the stellar 2024 class.
So what, exactly, does that message of loyalty mean when you jettison players in-season by sitting them on the bench?
It’s a lot easier for those of us outside the arena to scream that Hubert Davis should bench any or all of these starters when they aren’t performing, but he’s also the one who not only has to deal with the consequences of that decision in the short term, he also has to explain to the potential one and dones and graduate transfers that he’s going after why he says one thing to them but in practice it’s something different.
Yes, folks like Caleb Love and Leaky Black have been given multiple chances to elevate themselves and perform at a level that would have gotten Carolina to their goals this season, but the moment you bench them for performance and start elevating other guys to their position, you’ve essentially lost them for the rest of the season...and perhaps beyond. With as easy as it is for players to transfer now, you also have to be mindful of how it appears to current and future members that you are willing to just drop people if they don’t perform well.
It’s frustrating, but with all of these factors, coaching basketball players requires a different skillset than the one Roy Williams brought to the table. Williams recognized this, by the way, and is aware of the high standard of Carolina Basketball and realized he just wasn’t equipped to reach this current batch of kids in the way that is needed. He loves them dearly-just check out the fact that Caleb Love still jumps up to slap five to him as he runs out of the team tunnel-but he knew his style just wasn’t one players at that level are receptive to.
“OK,” you say, “but come on, if Hubert coached better wouldn’t Carolina be doing better?” Let’s talk about that part last
Hubert Davis can’t actually make the shots
Anyone who follows Trevor William Marks on Twitter knows that tired trope of “Hubert Davis can’t coach” is just not true. As the season has progressed, he has documented just how teams have evolved their defense to pack it inside against Armando Bacot and dare Carolina to shoot from three?
How badly have they been packing inside?
Yes. That’s four Tar Heels open as two hurricanes are in the paint, and two are mere steps from the paint, and the fifth is close enough to it to provide another bit of help. The result of this play? A missed 3 pointer by Pete Nance with 16:17 left. Luckily, Leaky Black was able to grab a rebound, and RJ Davis was able to get a layup.
Marks goes into this more on another thread, and paraphrasing him wouldn’t do it justice.
“The Tar Heels literally run no offense.”— Trevor William Marks (@twmarks_) February 15, 2023
This is refuted by watching film. We’re in the final weeks of the season and have nearly two years of tape on HD’s (ever-expanding) playbook. A bit perplexed that we still see takes like these from writers/analysts that cover the game. https://t.co/VNNxpOreFD
Hubert Davis has continually drawn up an offense that is best suited for the particular talent he has on the floor this season. The problem has been that the shots haven’t fallen, except in a few games. Carolina is shooting about five percent less from behind the arc than last season (35% in ‘21-’22 to 30% this season), and when you are continually losing games by a few points, that difference matters.
There’s only so much a coach can do when teams play this type of defense to leave you with the ability to take a particular type of shot and you don’t hit that shot. We saw some of the adjustment against Clemson by using Bacot as a seal to allow the guards to drive more. One could argue that Davis could push pace more and not allow teams to get set, but teams are quick to concede rebounds to the Tar Heels at the free-throw line, and they are quick to run up court before Carolina can get their fast break going.
There’s also something to the fact that Carolina is relying on five players going the majority of the time, and the thought that the slower pace is meant to keep them from tiring out quicker. So, again, we get to the question of the bench. Even if you look past the loyalty issues above, there are other reasons why the big four are going to play a lot of minutes together.
Last season, with a new coach and a team trying to figure itself out, Hubert Davis eventually went with the Iron Five approach by the end with Brady Manek taking the lion share of the minutes at the four. This was mostly because he wanted them to play as much together as they could because of all the new players integrating into a new offense. Now, these returning four had gotten so used to playing with each other but weren’t used to playing with Pete Nance who is a completely different player than Brady Manek. Thus, those four were going to need to play as much as possible with Nance so they could get comfortable with each other-and then add in the injuries throughout the year to Bacot, Nance, Puff Johnson, and Davis, you create a situation where you want to try and create as much continuity as possible. It’s what he did last season and it eventually worked, so there’s little reason to change that up.
So when I typed last week after the Wake Forest loss that Hubert’s hands were basically tied at this point, that’s what I mean. The work they’ve done all year has gotten to a point that they are where they are. The offense is producing open shots, they just have to hit them, and for as much time as this team has played together, these five haven’t played together as much as you would hope, and the only way they get better is to play together more.
Overall, this adds up to where it’s tough to say Hubert is the biggest reason why the Tar Heels have struggled this season. Can you nitpick things? Absolutely, but when you take the time to actually diagnose the issues, it’s tough to imagine Davis doing much more than he already has with the buttons he has to push. It’s also why a full judgement into how Davis overall as a coach shouldn’t be done until he’s had a couple of season of coaching nothing but “his” players.
Patience is not a virtue many UNC fans have. It’s one they are going to need for the next few seasons as they continue this transition.