IN OCTOBER, a bus pulled up to a hotel in Orlando, Florida, and members of the North Carolina men’s college basketball team began to stream aboard. The Tar Heels were traveling out of the city — where they had watched former UNC star Cole Anthony and the Magic play the New York Knicks the previous night — to Gainesville for a scrimmage against Florida. Hubert Davis took his seat at the front of the bus, the spot reserved for head coaches on those trips.
Davis had not felt much pressure since he’d accepted the role of head coach six months earlier. Sure, he had made history as the program’s first ever Black head coach. And he was following in the footsteps of Roy Williams, who had retired in April. But he’d spent nearly a decade as Williams’ assistant and believed he understood the gravity of his new role. As a player — including at North Carolina under Dean Smith — he had earned a reputation as a cool-headed sharpshooter who’d never seemed rattled or nervous, and he had so far stayed that way in his coaching career.
But the moment he sat down at the front of the bus, it hit him.
“That’s the only time and the first time I was like, ‘Wow, this is different,'” Davis said. “I remember calling my wife and saying, ‘It’s the strangest thing.’ Out of all the stuff — the practices, the press conferences, the media — all that hadn’t affected me. I hadn’t had a moment of thinking that I’m the head coach for the University of North Carolina, except when I sat at the front of the bus.”
Ten games in, the role and all the feelings that accompany it are beginning to sink in for Davis.
A shaky 3-2 start, which included narrow wins over Brown and College of Charleston and consecutive losses to Purdue and Tennessee, has given way to genuine progress in Davis’ first year. The Tar Heels (8-2, 1-0 ACC) have won five straight heading into Saturday’s scheduled meeting against either UCLA or Kentucky at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. They blew out Michigan in front of home fans in Chapel Hill and handled Georgia Tech in the ACC opener. They’re on the cusp of the top 25 while playing the perimeter-focused style Davis prefers.
R.J. Davis helps UNC stave off Brown’s upset with a 3-pointer late in the second half.
But Davis has been around Chapel Hill long enough to know that isn’t going to be enough long term. Through his first 10 games, North Carolina is still searching for a consistent stretch of good basketball. And he knows well that the style he prefers will become heavily scrutinized with the next two-game losing streak.
“It takes time,” Davis said on Thursday during a media Zoom. “We have two freshmen. We have three transfers. And they have a new coach. We’ve only played 10 games. It takes time to build relationships. It takes time to figure each other out, out there on the floor.”
Davis may not have the time he wants with the expectations placed on a historic program that’s used to being among the college basketball elites. The difficult part of Davis’ mission starts now.
FORMER UNC HEAD coach Matt Doherty knows something about how Davis feels in his first season. Doherty had been the head coach at Notre Dame for just a year when he received the offer to take over at North Carolina, where he’d played on the 1982 national title squad that featured Michael Jordan along with stars James Worthy and Sam Perkins.
“I remember the day of my first game coaching at North Carolina, I felt like I couldn’t breathe all day,” Doherty said. “I felt pressure on my chest. Not like a heart attack, but I just felt like I couldn’t breathe. And then once the ball went up, it was basketball. And I think that, in a way, was a relief.”
The Tar Heels finished 26-7 in Doherty’s first season (2000-01). The following year, they ended the 2001-02 campaign with an 8-20 mark, an unspeakably poor season by the standards UNC had set as one of college basketball’s premier programs. In a state that bleeds Carolina Blue, where even the legend Dean Smith was hung in effigy once upon a time, the pitchforks were out. A 19-16 finish in Doherty’s third season would be his last. His firing paved the way for Williams’ return (he had previously served as assistant coach under Smith from 1978 to 1988) and the second golden era of Tar Heels hoops.
Doherty said he never anticipated the responsibilities of the head coaching role at North Carolina. Only 15% of his job was coaching, he said.
“It’s all the other stuff,” Doherty said. “After a game at North Carolina, you’ve got 20, 30 media [requests]. You got people calling and maybe some aren’t happy with playing time and how do you manage all that if you go on a losing streak? People wouldn’t be happy with their seats, their parking passes. You’re responsible for at least 300 tickets — at least I was. And 150 parking passes. Every game.”
Nearly 20 years later, the demands on a head coach at UNC remain substantial.
Davis does have an advantage over Doherty, however, having benefited from watching Williams handle the role, up close and personal, for the past nine years. And he remains close with Williams, who hand-picked Davis to be his successor.
“There’s not much advice I’m giving him,” Williams said. “We talk about a lot of different things. The one thing I would tell him is just be yourself. You don’t have to be Dean Smith or Roy Williams. You’re good enough to get it done. You’re good enough to be a fantastic coach and have a fantastic and successful career for a long, long time.”
Davis has clearly not tried to be Williams as a coach.
Under Williams, UNC was big, aggressive and strong in the paint, dominating the offensive glass. Davis’ Tar Heels feature more versatile bigs and the team overall — 41% from the 3-point line — centers its offensive game plan around the perimeter. It’s not uncommon to see a 6-foot-11 Dawson Garcia or a 6-9 Brady Manek on the 3-point line, borderline blasphemous for a school with a tradition of dominance in the paint.
“I like versatile bigs,” Davis said. “I do like bigs that can run the floor and can score around the basket. But I also like bigs that can handle the ball, that can shoot from the perimeter, that can make plays beyond the 3-point line, that can shoot.”
Early on, there was some question about whether Davis’ preferences were suited to his personnel. One possession of North Carolina’s game against Brown on Nov. 12 started with all five players on the perimeter. There were seven passes — only one to the post — on a trip capped by an R.J. Davis 3-pointer. But the Tar Heels had to fight hard to come away with the 94-87 win over the Ivy League team. That win began a stretch that saw UNC allow 83 points or more in four straight games.
After his team gave up 93 points in a loss to Purdue on Nov. 20 and then suffered a 17-point loss to Tennessee the next night, Davis was quick to call out his team’s poor defensive effort. “There has to be a competitive fire and nature to guard your guy and keep him out of the lane,” he said of being outscored 96-40 in the paint over those two games.
Dawson Garcia and Armando Bacot each notch a double-double in UNC’s 74-61 win.
Since then, a switch has flipped. North Carolina outscored its next two Power 5 opponents, Michigan and Georgia Tech, 72-52 in the post. The 72-51 throttling of Michigan saw the Wolverines score their fewest points in a regular season game during the Juwan Howard era. Georgia Tech meanwhile never got comfortable offensively in the 79-62 loss four days later. More recently, on Tuesday, the Tar Heels took Furman‘s best shot for a half before flexing their defensive muscles in a 74-61 win over a quality Paladins team.
Any worries about scheme or questions about UNC identity have subsided — for now.
“Something that I like about our team is that we can change, we can adjust, we can pivot, in order for us to be better out there on the floor,” Davis said. “But I’m also hopeful that there’s a game where we don’t have to and we play great the entire game.”
AT THE AGE of 16, Davis’ mother, Bobbie, died of oral cancer. Davis said that he was bitter and lost in the years that followed.
“She was my best friend,” he said. “Going through that horrific experience hardened me.”
The grief nearly broke him, but he channeled his pain into sports and earned a chance to play at North Carolina and emulate his uncle, six-time NBA All-Star Walter Davis, who had also been a star for the Tar Heels in the 1970s. Dean Smith wasn’t sold on Hubert’s athleticism though, and told him he might redshirt or struggle to crack the rotation.
“I was always told ‘No’ throughout my entire life, and when I’m told ‘No,’ or ‘You can’t,’ that adds another couple of logs to the fire,” Davis said. “It just does. If you don’t have a toughness, an inner fire inside of you to be the best that you can be every day, you can’t play for me. You just can’t. Because everything in my life, I’ve had to fight for.”
“I think he’s honestly the nicest person I’ve ever met in my life and yet, very competitive,” Williams said of Davis.
Davis ended up playing 137 games with the Tar Heels, averaging 21.7 PPG as a senior during the 1991-92 season. His success led to his selection as a first-round pick in the 1992 NBA draft, which featured future Hall of Fame players Shaquille O’Neal and Alonzo Mourning.
He began his pro career with the Knicks and played 12 seasons in the NBA. His 44.1% clip from the 3-point line is the No. 2 mark all time in NBA history, behind legendary sharpshooter Steve Kerr. He had a longer career than all but nine of the 19 players who were selected before him in the draft.
He retired following the 2003-04 season and became an ESPN analyst before accepting an offer from Williams in 2012 to join North Carolina’s coaching staff. For the next nine years, Davis helped Williams mold some of the top North Carolina players of the past decade and contributed to the team’s national title run in 2017.
Days after UNC’s 91-73 win over Duke on March 6, 2021, Williams invited Davis and his wife over for dinner.
“That’s when he told me that he was going to retire and he wanted me to be the next head coach,” Davis said. “[At the time] my response was to tell him how much he was best for this team and this program and this university and how settled and how joyful I was to be one of his assistants. That’s all I said. We still had to go to the ACC tournament and the NCAA tournament, and [Williams] and I never talked about it. I personally stayed away from him and didn’t talk to him about it.”
Williams revisited their conversation after the season and made a formal request for Davis to succeed him at North Carolina.
At that point, Davis’ response was simple: “I would love to.”
IN A PRESEASON practice in October, Davis challenged his team.
If he made a 3-pointer, he told his players, they would lose some shoes. If he missed, they’d get some extra shoes.
“[Davis] missed the shot,” said guard Caleb Love. “The whole team went crazy.”
But Davis was quick to remind his players that he can still score.
“He’s still got that jump shot,” forward Armando Bacot said. “He’s talking trash as he’s making his shots, trying to let us know that he’s still got it.”
The lighthearted vibe Davis has created in a team that added two freshmen and three key transfers, including Manek (Oklahoma) and Garcia (Marquette), has helped the Tar Heels build chemistry on and off the court. Plus, Davis has stitched UNC’s DNA into every facet of the program.
Every assistant coach attended North Carolina. Players on the current roster say the hiring of Davis and the familiarity with the staff helped UNC avoid a mass exodus.
“Once Coach Davis got the job, it was a no-brainer,” Love said, of his decision to remain at UNC. “I knew I was staying. … A lot of us were thinking about going other places. Coach Davis being the head coach, it kept us together.”
Under Davis, every player on the roster must visit coaches’ offices three times per week and speak to every coach. But they’re not allowed to talk about basketball. It’s an effort to get to know his players, Davis said. He does not, however, know about their social media habits or the chatter they see every day about their performances. Davis is not on Twitter and vows to never join.
To Davis, Twitter is a distraction in a season where he and his players can’t afford them. He knows this season will be crucial to the momentum he builds, or fails to build, in the years ahead for the program.
The pressure’s on, will stay on even with a win on Saturday against the Bruins or the Wildcats and will persist in Davis’ effort to join Frank McGuire, Smith and Williams as Tar Heels coaches who have won national titles. Still, Davis said he will not lose his cool.
“I don’t feel pressure at all,” Davis said. “I just don’t compare myself to people. Coach Smith was Coach Smith and Coach Williams was Coach Williams and I’m myself. The only thing I need to be concerned about is doing the best job that I can do. I don’t ever put myself in a position to ever compare myself. I just try to be the best that I can be.”