Final Four 2022: North Carolina men's coach Hubert Davis' bumpy, winding and ultimately historic ...

ByPete Thamel ESPN logo
Thursday, March 31, 2022

PHILADELPHIA -- North Carolina Tar Heelsmen's basketball coach Hubert Davis exited the collective embrace of his coaching staff, walked down the sideline for the postgame handshake after UNC clinched a Final Four bid on Sunday and began feeling the emotion bubbling up inside of him.

As he approached Saint Peter's coach Shaheen Holloway, Davis reached up with both hands to wipe tears from his eyes. By the time he reached the postgame interview with CBS sideline reporter Jamie Erdahl, the emotion had bubbled to a genuine crescendo, prompting tears of joy on national television.

"I just desperately wanted this for them," Davis said. "I love these guys so much."

The first season of Davis' tenure as head coach at North Carolina had transformed precipitously four weeks ago. North Carolina entered Cameron Indoor Stadium on March 5 as an improving team that had likely inched its way to the right side of the NCAA tournament bubble with a 22-8 record. But the Tar Heels were also a streaky and vulnerable team that lost its eight regular-season games by an average of 17.3 points.

After spoiling Mike Krzyzewski's final home game -- and the daylong party that accompanied it -- North Carolina veered Davis' early tenure from a turbulent start to a promising future. With theTar Heels continuing that momentum to reach a college basketball-record 21st Final Four this weekend, Davis has had a stage to show the country a distinct evolution of North Carolina basketball.

The postgame crying jag fits with the empathetic leadership style Davis has portrayed this season. He sounded as much like a yoga teacher as a basketball coach during news conferences in Philadelphia, speaking thoughtfully about his appreciation of the opportunity to help shape the lives of the Carolina players.

"This is not a job," Davis said. "To me this is missionary work. It really is. It's put me in a position where I can help and serve and coach and teach and give back to these kids...

"To be in that position is very humbling," Davis said. "I'm very thankful and appreciative, and it's a great place to be."

Davis crafted a solid NBA career after starring for Dean Smith at North Carolina from 1988 to 1992, getting selected by the New York Knicks in the first round of the NBA draft and earning $16.8 million over 12 years on six teams.

Davis spent a handful of years as an ESPN analyst before joining Roy Williams' staff at UNC in 2012. He was Williams' preferred choice as his successor when the Hall of Famer stepped down last spring, a move that kept the job in the North Carolina family but also presented a degree of risk, considering Davis' lack of head-coaching experience.

What was never in doubt was Davis' passion for UNC and its history, as,at the East Regional, he constantly referenced the life lessons learned from past coaches Smith, Bill Guthridge and Williams. Davis said he appreciated the opportunity Smith gave him at Carolina, as he wasn't a blue-chip recruit. And he has enjoyed paying things forward.

"Every day I'm doing something that I love at the place that I've always loved my entire life," he said. "Even when I took the job, my feet were planted because I was in a place where I wanted to be."

Davis took over amid a dismal slump for UNC basketball, at least by the program's gilded standards. The Tar Heels were 6-14 in the 2019-20 season cut short by the pandemic and got blown out by No. 9-seed Wisconsin in the first round of the NCAA tournament last year.

Davis then threaded the needle of staying true to the foundations of success set by his predecessors at Carolina while bringing some needed modernization to a program that had been defiantly wed to Williams' system.

Davis did more than change the unofficial faux swear word in the program from Williams' crutch, "dadgum," to what UNC senior Leaky Black identified as Davis' -- "bejeezers."

The vibe around the program became more like the NBA, with much shorter practices late in the season a reflection of Davis' 12 seasons in the league. The style shifted to an updated brand of basketball, as there's been less focus on the devotion to a pair of big men moored in the post and the offensive rebounding dominance that came from that.

By bringing in fifth-year Oklahoma transfer Brady Manek to play the 4 spot, Davis assured Carolina would play with more versatility. Manek, a 6-foot-9 forward, has attempted 6.2 3-pointers per game. He has made just under 40%, which gives UNC's offense flexibility and has established Manek as a foundational player for UNC this season (15.2 PPG).

"Coach Williams has been a hell of a coach for a long time; he has his way of doing things," Black said. "I feel like Coach Davis [is] the new age coach. He knows basketball is evolving, and he made that leap. I feel like that's been good for us...

"Allowing [guards] Caleb [Love] and R.J. [Davis] to make plays in the paint, that just really opens everything up for us and [doesn't] clog everything up."

Opponents noticed the difference. UNC's fidelity to dominating the offensive glass might be the best place to show the program's evolution, as Williams' affinity for two big men allowed the Tar Heels to finish in the top 20 in offensive rebound percentage each of the past eight years, including No. 1 nationally in a pair of those years.

But with the game's evolution to becoming more perimeter-oriented, UNC has adjusted. The Heels finished No. 77 in offensive rebounding percentage this season, and that's with star big man Armando Bacot ranking No. 25 individually in offensive rebound percentage (14.6%), per data.

The transformation has hardly been seamless, as evidenced by those blowout losses and a head-scratching home loss to 11-win Pittsburgh back on Feb. 16. But the late-season surge that could continue Saturday and Davis' aura have given the program a burst of momentum that seemed unlikely six weeks ago. And by leading UNC back to the Final Four, Davis -- the first coach to lead a team to the Final Four in his first college season since Guthridge in 1998 -- has established a new twist on Carolina blue.

"He has been terrific," UNC athletic director Bubba Cunningham said. "I do think everything is fundamentally grounded in his personal values. And I think that really, really helps when things are challenging."

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