North Carolina coach Hubert Davis’ vision was there even when it seemed perhaps absurd to believe the Tar Heels would reach the Final Four. The first-year coach took a well-used motivational tactic a step further before the season began.
Davis had a print of the Superdome, site of the 2022 Final Four, posted in every players’ locker. That’s not original — former UNC coach Dean Smith once did the same thing, printing the Final Four venue for his teams to visualize. Davis, however, took it one step further. He told parents to start booking flights.
This was well before their Elite Eight win over Saint Peter’s officially secured their place in New Orleans. Davis was saying this before he ever coached a game.
“He told us, I think, when he first got the job,” forward Armando Bacot said. “Like, I don’t even think we got Brady (Manek) at that point.”
The Heels have always believed in their potential. It’s only now that they started realizing it on the court, too. The rest of the college basketball world understood the change when they went into Cameron Indoor Stadium and beat Duke 94-81 in the final home game of coach Mike Krzyzewski’s career.
While Carolina is the lowest seed in the Final Four, reaching it as an eight seed for the second time in program history, Davis isn’t surprised they made it to New Orleans.
“I really did expect that we’d be a good team,” Davis said. “And it allowed us to be in a position to play in the Final Four.”
The Heels again find themselves underdogs against Duke. But their unwavering belief that they can win when others don’t is something like a skill set for Carolina.
When guards Caleb Love and R.J. Davis have been erratic, Carolina has struggled to win games. But there have been fewer of those games down the stretch of the season and conversely, when they play well, the Heels have been equally tough to beat
Their respective 30-point games proved they can take over the game when needed, as Davis did in their second-round win over Baylor, and Love did in their Sweet 16 win over UCLA.
Love almost seems due for a big game against Duke this season. He only scored eight points in their loss, and didn’t shoot well from the floor, but made all 12 of his free throws in scoring 22 in their win. Last season, both of his best games came against the Blue Devils most notably his 25-point, 7-assist performance as a freshman in UNC’s win at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Davis has averaged 5.1 assists in the postseason, highlighted by his career-high 12 assists in their first round win against Marquette.
“We’re doing a much better job of taking care of the basketball,” Hubert Davis said. “I think R.J. and Caleb have been fantastic at making good decisions with the ball, and that is the key for us to have success on Saturday.”
Make Duke defend
When Carolina lost by 20 to Duke at home, part of the narrative was that it simply did not match up well defensively with the Blue Devils. The thing is, Duke has to guard the Tar Heels, too.
UNC scored 55 points in the second half of their win in Cameron Indoor Stadium. Manek could be the key player to watch for the Heels. He’s the only player who scored at least 20 points in both meetings — thanks in part to making a combined 11 3-pointers — with the Blue Devils this season.
Manek had to guard Duke’s Paolo Banchero, who dropped 15 of his 23 points in the first half on March 5. But Manek, who had 21 points at Duke, essentially nullified Banchero’s offensive output by making him work defensively.
“Having Brady is amazing all year,” Love said. “He opens up the floor a lot because he can shoot the ball so well.”
Bacot’s matchup with Duke center Mark Williams might not determine whether the Heels win the game, but if it goes the wrong way, it definitely could be the reason why the Heels lose. Remember the first meeting, when Bacot picked up two fouls in the first 10 minutes of play. Duke outscored the Heels by 11 and it was game over.
Early in the season, it seemed Bacot had difficulty playing against 7-footers. But no one was saying that after Bacot shot 10-for-11 from the field and scored 23 points in Carolina’s win at Duke. Bacot said the key against Williams — besides staying out of foul trouble — was to be physical and go at Williams. Bacot said he can’t settle for jump hooks and shooting away from the basket. He’s got to get into Bacot’s body.
“He’s a good shot blocker so if I can just kind of get him off balanced and falling back, it’ll help him pick up fouls, and you know, get easier shots again,” said Bacot, who added he needed to get shots, “closer to the basket too.”