Rookie coach Hubert Davis takes Tar Heels back to Final Four

Carolina joins the blue blood party in a transition year for the program

Point guard Caleb Love's dominant second-half performance against UCLA vaulted UNC into the Elite Eight, where the Tar Heels easily dispatched Saint Mary's. Now Carolina readies for a Final Four matchup against hated Duke on Saturday in New Orleans. (Chris Szagola / AP Photo)

This year’s Final Four features three of the most accomplished head coaches in college basketball today — and the new guy.

Much has been made of the fact that it’s an all-blue blood Final Four, with Duke, Kansas, Villanova and UNC tying a record by bringing a combined 17 titles to the last weekend of the tournament. The team wearing light blue, however, is also the lightest on head coaching experience.

The national semifinals feature Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, winner of five titles and headed to the Final Four for a record 13th time; Kansas’ Bill Self, like Krzyzewski a Naismith Hall of Famer, headed to his fourth national semifinal and looking for his second title; and Villanova’s Jay Wright, who is making his fourth trip and looking for his third title in the last six tourneys.

Then there’s Hubert Davis. He’s just the ninth coach in history to make the Final Four in his first season at the helm. While the other coaches can break out their Final Four protocols and rely on what’s worked and what hasn’t in past trips, Davis is doing everything for the first time as the head coach.

That’s not to say he’s brand new to the big stage. Davis played in a Final Four at UNC, leading the team with 25 points on 9-of-16 shooting. He’s also been to two as an assistant to Roy Williams. The 2017 national championship team credited his emotional halftime speech in the title game with motivating them to wrap up the crown in the final 20 minutes.

Still, there’s a difference between being there and leading a team there. Davis admitted as much before the Elite Eight win over Saint Peter’s.

“I think that’s the biggest difference between being an assistant and a head coach,” he said. “As an assistant you’re always making suggestions, and as a head coach you’re always making decisions.”

Any trip to the Final Four is a tall task, but Davis is facing one of the toughest challenges as Carolina will play Duke on Saturday in what will undoubtedly be the biggest game ever played in the best rivalry in sports.

Davis already pulled off a miracle upset of the Blue Devils, winning on a day his Tar Heels were expected to play the Washington Generals to Duke’s Harlem Globetrotters in Coach K’s final game at Cameron Indoor Stadium. The Tar Heel faithful printed T-shirts commemorating that win, and many proclaimed it the biggest regular season win in program history.

Now, Davis has a chance to top that performance a mere four weeks later.

The pressure and emotion will be ratcheted up to all-time highs on both sides, and it will take an expert approach to have the team prepared for the game.

That’s a lot to ask of a rookie, but Davis has already done a strong coaching job this season. In November, the Tar Heels dropped back-to-back games in Uncasville, including an embarrassing 17-point loss to Tennessee. In December, they were crushed by Kentucky, 98-69. January saw Miami beat them by 28 and Wake Forest by 22 in consecutive games. Duke beat them by 20 in February, and that month also saw UNC’s NCAA Tournament hopes get put on the wrong side of the bubble with a home loss to Pitt that was, according to analytics, UNC’s worst loss in more than a decade.

Along the way, Davis lost two players — Anthony Harris was declared out for the rest of the season in January, and Dawson Garcia left the team in February due to family issues.

Just when the team seemed dead in the water, things turned abruptly. UNC has won 10 of 11 games since the Pitt loss, including the win over Duke at Cameron.

In the tournament, UNC has also seen a roller coaster, looking unbeatable in a 32-point win over Marquette and building a 25-point lead over top seed Baylor. UNC saw that entire lead disappear before surviving in overtime. The Heels then finished strong to get past UCLA and blew out Saint Peter’s to reach the Final Four.

“I believe that what has allowed us to get to this point has been time,” Davis said. “This has been a year of newness: new head coach, new coaching staff, three new players, transfers, two new freshmen, some tweaks, pivots, changes in our style, both offensively and defensively. I just think it’s shared experiences over time, and I know that everybody wants everything to fit perfectly in November and December, and it just takes time.”

Time may be the key to UNC’s turnaround, but it’s also the area in which the Tar Heels and Davis are at the largest disadvantage in facing three other coaches who have spent more time on the biggest stage than anyone else coaching today.

Will they be up to the task? Time will tell.