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2 Months Before NCAA Tournament, Tar Heels Standing Out In Amazing Ways

By David Glenn


If North Carolina coach Hubert Davis had received midseason report cards during his first two seasons leading the Tar Heels, he would not have fared well.

Two years ago, during Davis’ head coaching debut, Carolina seemed locked in mediocrity for almost three months. Just 12-6 in mid-January, and without a signature victory, the Tar Heels were in jeopardy of missing the NCAA Tournament. Only after Oklahoma transfer Brady Manek became acclimated to the starting lineup did the Heels improve enough to become an eight seed in the NCAA Tournament, then make their magical run to the national championship game.

Last season, Carolina once again had a 12-6 record in mid-January. The Tar Heels’ best wins at the time were over solid-looking Ohio State and Michigan squads just before Christmas, but those teams later stumbled to 16-19 and 18-16 records, respectively. The Heels ultimately fell apart, too, finishing 20-13 and — infamously, as the preseason #1 team — missing the NCAA Tournament entirely. They declined an invitation to the NIT.

This time, about two months into the four-month-long journey to the 2024 NCAA Tournament, Davis has led the Tar Heels to a 13-3 record, a #3 national ranking, and an undefeated (5-0) mark in ACC play. UNC’s resume includes huge victories over elite opponents such as Oklahoma (now ranked #15 nationally) and Tennessee (#6), plus very impressive, back-to-back-to-back ACC road wins over postseason hopefuls Pitt, Clemson and NC State.

While there are no official “Midseason ACC Awards,” if there were, Davis would be among the top candidates for ACC Coach of the Year, and at least four of his players would be in contention for some of the league’s other prestigious honors.

With continued success, all of these Tar Heels will be serious contenders for the actual awards, which are voted on and announced in mid-March, after the conclusion of the regular season.

Hubert Davis

ACC Coach of the Year contender

Prior to the turn of the century, even the future Hall of Fame coaches at perennial powers Duke and UNC often won the ACC Coach of the Year award, although they came less frequently after they had established their dynasties. Legendary Carolina coach Dean Smith holds the all-time record with eight such honors, and legendary Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski is next, with five.

Since 2000, about half the time the award has gone to a coach whose team finished first (including ties) in the conference standings, and about half the time it has gone to the coach perceived to have overachieved the most compared to preseason expectations. Occasionally, the same candidate does both of those things.

The modern trend once reached such an absurd level that, in 2017, Georgia Tech’s Josh Pastner received the honor … after finishing 11th in the 15-team ACC. Eleventh! In most years, though, the voters tend to reward the coach whose team did something special, not the coach who merely helps elevate his team from a predicted disaster into prolonged mediocrity.

This year’s Coach of the Year voting will be interesting because, here in mid-January, the only two coaches who have built surefire NCAA Tournament-worthy resumes — Davis and Duke’s Jon Scheyer (13-3, #7 national ranking) — are carrying the weight of high expectations. The Blue Devils were picked first in the preseason ACC media poll, the Tar Heels third.

Beyond Duke’s impressive record and ranking, the case for Scheyer should include the fact that the Blue Devils — at a time when, because of the extra COVID year and other factors, college basketball has rarely been older or more experience overall — are among the few teams still trying to win the old-fashioned way: by signing and developing high school players while limiting their number of incoming transfers. Five of the Devils’ top six players are freshmen or sophomores, which is extremely rare in today’s game.

The case for Davis, if Carolina’s success continues at a high level, should include some very important (but very different) intangibles, too.

First, a huge part of great coaching is great teaching, especially the kind that translates well from the practice court to game day. When players learn and digest important concepts well enough to implement them consistently, their team inevitably improves, and that reflects well on the entire coaching staff.

About a month ago, when the Tar Heels were coming off back-to-back losses to UConn and Kentucky, they were not defending or rebounding at a high level. Davis even called his players out publicly for their lack of intensity on the boards, and privately the Heels spent a lot of practice time on both areas.

One month later, UNC has elevated its defense and rebounding to the point where the Tar Heels are, statistically, among the most well-balanced teams in the entire country. According to the efficiency statistics at KenPom.com, only four teams rank among the 15 best on both offense and defense: Carolina, Arizona (12-4), Auburn (14-2) and BYU (14-3). Houston (14-2), Purdue (16-2) and Tennessee (13-4) are the only other teams at or near both thresholds.

Another factor that should work in Davis’ favor, if the Tar Heels’ success continues, is the reality that every experienced player in his 2024 rotation endured something extremely negative on the court last season. Just as success can beget success, failure can beget failure.

UNC veterans Armando Bacot and RJ Davis — just last year — played central roles in one of the most disappointing seasons in Carolina’s storied history. Transfer Harrison Ingram never experienced a winning record, or a single postseason game, during his two years at Stanford. Transfer Cormac Ryan suffered through an 11-21 season, a 14th-place ACC finish and the departure of his coach last year at Notre Dame. Transfer Jae’Lyn Withers started at Louisville for the past three seasons, during which he witnessed a coaching change and (last year) played on one of the worst teams (4-28) in program history. Transfer Paxson Wojcik lost more games than he won during his past two seasons as a starter for Brown.

Nevertheless, those same guys are winning — a lot — in the immediate aftermath of those psychological scars and sometimes-extreme disappointments. That’s a credit to those players, for sure, but as their leader, Hubert Davis deserves an enormous amount of credit, too.

RJ Davis

ACC Player of the Year contender

Projected First-Team All-ACC

The ACC Player of the Year race may come down to Davis (20 ppg, 3 rpg, 3 apg, 43% FG, 95% FT, 41% threes, 24 steals) and Duke forward Kyle Filipowski (18 ppg, 9 rpg, 3 apg, 52% FG, 68% FT, 41% threes, 31 blocks, 20 steals). A seven-footer, “Flip” may have a slight edge because of his massive impacts at both ends of the floor, although the race also will be impacted by their teams’ relative levels of success down the stretch. Both players are legitimate All-America candidates, too.

Armando Bacot

Projected First-Team All-ACC

Along with Filipowski and Davis, the top candidates here include Bacot (15 ppg, 11 rpg, 54% FG, 79% FT, 29 blocks) and Clemson forward PJ Hall (20 ppg, 7 rpg, 53% FG, 80% FT, 36 blocks), with perhaps a half-dozen other high-quality players contending for the fifth and final spot.

Harrison Ingram

ACC Transfer of the Year contender

Possible 2nd/3rd-Team All-ACC selection

“Transfer of the Year” is not even an official category, but in the portal era, it seems especially fitting, because Ingram and others rank among the highest-impact newcomers (much more than even the best freshmen) in the entire ACC. Wake Forest guard Hunter Sallis (Gonzaga), Wake Forest guard Boopie Miller (Central Michigan), Clemson guard Joe Girard (Syracuse) and Miami forward Matthew Cleveland (Florida State) also are worth watching here.

Elliot Cadeau

ACC All-Freshman Team contender

While the ACC Freshman of the Year honor likely will go to one of the handful of rookies who were thrust immediately into starting lineups on lesser teams, such that their minutes and statistics will overwhelm those of the top freshmen on the best teams (who mostly are asked to be role players), Cadeau could make the five-man All-Freshman team. He has been an important figure in the Tar Heels’ success, given his high-level ball-handling, amazing court vision, consistent unselfishness and elite passing skills. The ACC’s most productive freshmen so far are led by Pitt point guard Carlton “Bub” Carrington, Notre Dame guard Markus Burton, Georgia Tech forward Baye Ndongo and Duke guard Jared McCain.

(featured image via Todd Melet)

David Glenn (DavidGlennShow.com@DavidGlennShow) is an award-winning author, broadcaster, editor, entrepreneur, publisher, speaker, writer and university lecturer (now at UNC Wilmington) who has covered sports in North Carolina since 1987.

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