PORTLAND, Ore. – Something Hubert Davis said to his first squad in North Carolina late last season stuck. Do you remember what it was? That there are three kinds of people out there: those who run from a fight, those who will fight – and those who seek a fight. “I want 17 guys in the locker room,” he said then, “that’s it Looking for for a fight.”
what happened to it
where did it go
“You know my personality: It’s live,” Davis said Thursday. “Whether it’s in training, in the groups, in the dressing room, it’s there. I don’t know how to play this game without passion, without emotion. It is impossible. I don’t know how you can do that.”
Well, it’s obviously not impossible – because his team is just now figuring out how.
“Coach Davis talked to us about playing with that fire and that enthusiasm and that energy,” said junior guard RJ Davis, “and you kind of see it: Sometimes that’s not really there.”
And that’s a problem, even just five games into the UNC season. Sneaking past Portland – who played the tar heels significantly closer than Thursday’s 89-81 final score would suggest – is not in itself a crime; The Pilots are making more than 36 percent of their 3’s and fittingly got 37.5 percent of those in this first round game of the Phil Knight Invitational. Also, as Davis noted after the game, Portland brought back seven or eight players from last season, so it’s an experienced roster. Secure. But at the same time… shouldn’t the nation’s No. 1 team — the one with four returning starters from last season’s national title fight, the one with two All-Americans from last season — be a little more impressive against a mid-tier West Coast conference side?
🎥: Highlights of today’s 89-81 win 🆚 Portland pic.twitter.com/rOfsWg8hR4
— Carolina Basketball (@UNC_Basketball) November 24, 2022
Of course it should – especially in what is probably the best offensive game of the Tar Heels so far. For the first time this season, UNC shot more than 50 percent from the floor in both halves, and all five starters finished in double digits. Shooting, Pete Nance had possibly the best performance of his collegiate career with 112 games: a team-high 28 points, including a career-high five 3-pointers, in 8-of-13 shooting. And yet, less than five minutes behind, North Carolina still wasn’t able to flip that supposed switch.
“It can’t take difficult moments before we can come together,” Nance said. “We need to be able to launch in that coherent way.”
He talks about it from game to game, but at this point? That sentiment holds true for UNC’s season so far. The Tar Heels just didn’t have the toughness or tenacity that inspired last spring’s tournament run. At this point, Davis would step in and – correctly – say that this is not the same group. And he’s right. It is not. Nance is new, as is the freshman class, and figuring out how all those pieces fit together would always take some time. That much is understandable.
what is not
That the other four starters — those who know Davis’ persona, who have played with that passion before — can’t consistently muster the desire they know it takes to win.
Because of this, while North Carolina’s ceiling is still the roof, this team isn’t clearly the best in the country right now. Great teams turn around as soon as the opening whistle blows and outdo their individual talent with grit. These tar heels have great talent and some courage – but not nearly enough and not nearly enough often.
“Hunger and thirst were there; I just want it to be more consistent,” Davis said. “I’m greedy. I like it for a full 40 minutes.”
And the frustrating thing for Davis, and certainly UNC fans, is that there are flashes. The Tar Heels threw a 12-0 run into play after just over six minutes, building a nine-point lead in the process… only to immediately allow a 10-0 counterattack from Portland that tied things back up at 18 at halftime: North Carolina leads by two, but hadn’t it fouled a 3-point shooter with 3.8 seconds left? Hadn’t that allowed the pilots to pull off a 15-6 run on the other side of that break? We’re talking about a completely different game. Those are the tiny inflection points where the proverbial throat-pounding can happen if you put the whole damn thing out of reach right there. Except, as wasn’t the case this season, North Carolina didn’t — or couldn’t. Instead, it made the pilots believe, who built into a back and forth from then on.
It’s not that individual guys didn’t do their part. Nance, usually on the nice side, was visibly demonstrative throughout the game, clapping at teammates and poking them in the chest. “I’m just trying to bring energy in every way I can,” he said. But, not to delve into it, shouldn’t it have meant more to him than having a full breakout game? Shouldn’t his teammates have seen that shooting magic and focus and followed him?
The same goes for Caleb Love, the king of no-no-yes, who is shooting his first two seasons in Chapel Hill. At the home level of his favorite player Damian Lillard, Love was as efficient as ever, turning down ridiculous or controversial attempts for cleaner ones; He finished 10-of-15 shooting with 23 points, including 3-of-4-of-3. Don’t you see that when you’re on the ground with him and at the same level of locked-in-ness?
“It’s a bit of a domino effect,” Davis added. “Once one guy brings energy, it brings (for) the whole team.”
It just wasn’t as pronounced against Portland for whatever reason. And, hey, look: Ultimately, the Tar Heels performed when it mattered most. They got the necessary stops too late. Penned free throws (although uncharacteristically missing ten of them that day) and honed the habits that go into winning.
They just want to see that – like their head coach would – they do these things from the opening tip and not just when the going gets tough.
That’s not to say Davis’ roster sucks, because it doesn’t. It clearly has all the skills needed to cut down the nets in Houston on the first Monday of April. But compared to how gruff this group was at its best last season, how they seemingly sought street fighting, this season’s iteration isn’t there yet. It looks disinterested or dazed, like it’s waiting for the actual games to begin.
Well they have. You are here. time to turn it on.
Because if North Carolina plays as poorly as it did Thursday for the rest of the Phil Knight Invitational, it’s almost a guarantee they’ll be beaten. Even when you see wonderful launches from the likes of Houston, Arizona and Virginia nationwide, it’s clear that UNC can no longer be #1.
Maybe that’s what this team needs: to let off some steam from the pressure cooker so the boys realize they won’t be perfect in every possession. Perhaps Davis’ team will show they can’t just beat teams on paper; it must actually hit them in the mouth on the floor.
“It’s interesting, you know, where we’re at; People have an expectation of what it should look like,” Davis said. “We should get up at halftime at 8pm. We’re supposed to win every game by 30. no We’re supposed to compete and play hard and keep improving and see what kind of team we can become.”
Perhaps this is a team worthy of winning it all, carrying the remarkable No. 1 next to its name. It could very well be. It probably should be.
But until UNC starts seeing things the way its head coach does — until it starts swinging again as soon as it leaves the locker room — we won’t know exactly what this team is capable of.
(Photo by Pete Nance: Troy Wayrynen / USA Today)