Saturday, May 28, 2022

Final Four 2022: How UNC turned its season around after a slow start in time for this NCAA Tournament run

NEW ORLEANS — Every team starts the season with a goal of getting to the Final Four and winning a national championship. For some teams, that goal is much more realistic than others and at North Carolina that goal always seems to be in reach.

The Tar Heels are playing in their 21st Final Four this week, the most of any team in NCAA history. But they are here for just the second time as a No. 8 seed and the path to get to this point has been full of potholes. Davis’ commitment to getting his players to block out the noise and do what needed to be done to maximize their potential as a team ultimately led them to New Orleans.

Davis, who took the job four days after Roy Williams retired exactly one year ago Friday, knew from Day One that his players had this kind of a postseason run in them.  

“The first day of practice I had put a picture of the Superdome in their locker,” he said Thursday as North Carolina prepared to practice before facing rival Duke on Saturday in the Final Four.  “I wanted them to see where we’re going and what we’re fighting for and why we’re practicing so hard, why we’re preparing, and what is going to be required of us to have a chance to be there.”

North Carolina checked in at No. 19  in the preseason AP poll — which is not exactly representative of an expectation of making it to the Final Four, and the team was not ready to play at even that level early on. It was a season of transition after the retirement of Williams and Davis taking over and things did not go smoothly at first.

“This has been a lot of new-ness,” Davis said. “It’s a new head coach, new coaching staff, three transfers, two freshmen, tweaks, pivots, alters in terms of how we play on both ends of the floor. It takes time.”

Indeed it did. The Tar Heels played a good non-conference schedule early on, but were mostly not up to the challenges of that schedule.  UNC lost to Tennessee and Purdue in Connecticut in November. The Tar Heels lost by 29 to Kentucky. They lost at Notre Dame and were blown out at Miami and Wake Forest in January. Things seemed to hit rock bottom though on Feb. 16, when North Carolina lost at home to Pitt, ranked No. 204 in the NET. 

At that point, North Carolina looked like a long shot to just make the NCAA Tournament, let alone get to a Final Four.

After that, the Tar Heels went on a six game winning streak that included victories at eventual ACC Tournament champion Virginia Tech and, of course, the 94-81 win at Duke on March 5, which at that time was their first win over a team that was likely to make the NCAA Tournament.

It seemed to most observers that was when UNC took off, or perhaps it was after the loss to Pitt.  But the players seem to think that it happened before that. Armando Bacot said he thought the light went on after a loss to Wake Forest that dropped the Tar Heels to 12-6 and 4-3 in the ACC.  Caleb Love agreed with that. RJ Davis pointed to the tough win over Syracuse right before the Duke game.

Davis has several sayings that he repeated over the course of the season in an effort to get his team to play to the level that he always believed they could.  He would preach things like “energy, effort and toughness.”

The most important one though had to do with focus.  

“We had to block out the noise. We had to focus on what was real for us to be at our best,” Davis said. “And what is real is our preparation and our practice and how well we play.”

That last part about preparation, practice and play is a key part of his philosophy. It must be because it was a constant theme as he met the media Thursday and Friday to discuss Saturday’s game. And he’s been telling that to the team all season as well.

“Beginning of the year, we were like, ‘why does he keep saying this?’ But later in the year, we’ve gotten to the point where it’s been like ‘he’s been right and this is why he’s been saying it,’ ” UNC forward Brady Manek said.  

It took a while, but Davis’ consistent message finally got through, and it has helped to propel his team to the Final Four and an opportunity to win North Carolina’s seventh national championship. That’s always the goal at North Carolina but it would also accomplish one more thing — to send Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski into retirement, which would be considered quite an important feat for the first-year coach by UNC fans.

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