NEW ORLEANS — It was desperation time for the Blue Devils, but Hubert Davis was the one with a decision to make.
With 10 seconds left and UNC leading by two, Caleb Love grabbed a rebound and was promptly fouled. He went to the line with a chance to put the Carolina lead to two possessions with just eight seconds remaining on the clock.
And Davis knew what he wanted to do.
“If he makes the first one,” he told his assistant coaches, “I’m going to call timeout.”
Carolina was on the verge of finishing off its biggest rival in the largest stakes a game between them ever held, and its first-year head coach was going to go against “the book.”
“You might ice your player,” Davis’ staff argued. Normally an opposing team will call a timeout to make a free-throw shooter think a little longer about the big shot he’s about to take.
Davis would not be moved. He called time, and the team gathered around him.
“I was like, ‘I’m calling timeout,’” he recalled. “The reason I called it was I was in the same situation as a JV coach. We were playing a prep school team, and I decided not to call a timeout. He made the first one. I didn’t call timeout. He missed the second one. They came down, and I did not talk to them about when to foul, the process defensively, what we’re doing on a made or missed shot. They came down, hit a 3 and we lost in overtime. … I said, ‘I’m not making that mistake again!’”
Davis discussed the end of game options and what-if scenarios with his players. Then Love knocked down the free throw and the clock ran out without incident, sending UNC to the national championship game.
“Seven years as a head coach for the JV program, obviously it’s on a much lesser scale, but you’re put in positions to make decisions, whether it’s in practice, games, shoot-arounds,” Davis said.
Clearly, Davis is not your standard first-year coach. At 51 years old, he has nearly a decade of experience as an assistant to Roy Williams and a head coaching trial by fire with the JV team — UNC is the only major program in the country to have such a program.
It allowed Davis to put together an improbable run for the Tar Heels in his debut season, rebuilding the offense, turning around a team that appeared headed for the wrong side of the bubble and coming up one win shy of a national title.
The question is, what’s next? Is Davis destined for coaching greatness out of the gate, or is he due for a sophomore slump?
The team will lose Brady Manek, whose play at the stretch four position allowed Davis’ offensive makeover to work. There’s also a chance that Love and Armando Bacot will decide to move on to the NBA.
At the moment, Carolina’s recruiting class for next year is good but not great — it consists of a trio of four-stars and a three-star. There’s still a chance hotshot 2023 prospect GG Jackson reclassifies to 2022 and chooses UNC over Duke, but Davis will likely need to fill holes with the transfer portal again heading into next season.
As Davis shapes the roster in the image he envisions, it’s worth considering some of the other coaches to burst onto the big scene.
Mike Davis comes to mind. The Indiana assistant got the head coaching job after Bobby Knight was fired. He led the Hoosiers to the title game in his second season and received a long contract extension. The team never reached that level again and, after he parted ways with the school in 2006, Davis admitted he wasn’t ready for the job.
Tubby Smith had six years of experience as head coach at Tulsa and Georgia, a significant step above the UNC JV, but in his first year in Kentucky, he won the national championship. Smith won five league titles in 10 seasons, including a 16-0 SEC season one year. Fans became frustrated that he never reached another Final Four, however, and he left with hard feelings on both sides.
Steve Fisher took over just before Michigan’s NCAA run in 1989 and, in his first six games on the bench, led the Wolverines to the national title. He was able to build on that with one of the most famous recruiting classes ever — the Fab Five — and a pair of national championship game appearances.
Is Davis another Steve Fisher or another Mike Davis? In a season in which he and his Tar Heels have defied expectations at every step, it’s perhaps worth taking a lesson from his confused assistant coaches late in the Duke game: Hubert Davis isn’t going to go by the book.