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This UNC team is tough and living up to a Dean Smith maxim

This team is so fun to watch precisely because of how mentally tough they are .

Duke v North Carolina Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

For the past few seasons there’s been a trait missing for UNC that has been tough to quantify: toughness. It doesn’t show up in the stats and analytics don’t account for it. Most people see the term “toughness” and think it’s about fighting and bringing a physicality to the floor, but to a large extent that hasn’t been the problem for UNC.

No, toughness is also a mentality, and this team has done what recent UNC squads haven't: shown just how mentally tough they are. It’s the biggest reason they can dream of something bigger than just getting into the NCAA tournament. How do you define mental toughness?

Just look at a great Dean Smith quote and you have your answer, “What to do with a mistake: recognize it, admit it, learn from it, forget it.”

The theme of the season starts with that quote simply based on the way that Hubert Davis constructed this roster with the amount of transfers both in and out of the program. We don’t have to break down what happened (again), but it’s clear that by the end Davis recognized that he didn’t do a very good job of coaching. He recognized and admitted it to every member of the team in the meetings after the 2023 season. Some decided to take those words and leave, some decided to stay. He learned after watching who succeeded nationally that he needed more unselfish players, hungry like Brady Manek was to find a different level of success and not caring who succeeds as long as the whole team does. He then put that plan into action and put last season behind him.

That theme was on full display Saturday night against the Blue Devils. All you have to do is look at the last few minutes — Cormac Ryan commits a turnover instead of calling a timeout, and on the very next play blocks the shot to stop momentum. RJ Davis “commits” a hook and hold, but rather than complain about it to the ref he and the team set great defense to get a quick steal. Armando Bacot and Davis in particular have been playing this season like they knew they let ego get the better of them last year. This year they have been the model of team players.

It hasn’t been just about the mistakes, though. Being mentally tough also means checking your ego to recognize where the opponent is letting you succeed. For the first half of the ACC season, teams would consistently double team Armando Bacot and leaving RJ Davis to be able to tear up teams on both drives and threes. All of the attention created space on the perimeter and Davis has been eating it up. On Saturday, Duke decided that they weren’t going to let Davis beat them, and Davis just deferred to Bacot and Harrison Ingram who put the team on their backs.

Being mentally tough means when you’re having a bad shooting night you still figure out what you can do to try and win. It means not letting up on any possession, understanding that even perfect defense will sometimes still result in a made basket. It means learning some moves from new teammates, both old and young, to add to your arsenal that makes the entirety of the team better. It means going after every loose ball, and not hanging your head when it ends up in the other team’s hands.

It means adjusting your style to how the game is being called. If the refs want to let the game be physical — as they did on Saturday night — you go at the other team hard on defense, and keep doing so until the refs decide to change. If the refs decide to call every bit of contact, you go hard on offense and force a parade to the free throw line.

It’s noticeable just how tough Carolina competes to each opponent, and Jon Scheyer made it a point to call out just how his team didn’t compete after they loss on Saturday. The Tar Heels have shown since the Kentucky loss that they needed to raise their level of toughness in order to compete and they've raised it more than any UNC team has shown in a long time. It’s been so fun to watch, and you hope that it’s something that continues all the way to Glendale in a couple of months.