PORTLAND, Ore. — Something Hubert Davis told his first North Carolina squad, late last season, stuck. Remember what it was? That there are three types of people out there: Those who run from a fight, those who will fight — and those looking for a fight. “I want 17 guys in the locker room,” he said then, “who are looking for a fight.”
What happened to that?
Where did it go?
“You know my personality: It’s live,” Davis said Thursday. “Whether it’s in practice, in the huddles, in the locker room, it’s there. I don’t know how you play this game without passion, without emotion. It’s impossible. I don’t know how you can do it.”
Well, clearly it isn’t impossible — because right now, his team is figuring out how to.
“Coach Davis was talking to us about playing with that fire and enthusiasm and energy,” junior guard R.J. Davis said, “and you kinda can see that: Sometimes that’s not really there.”
And that’s a problem, even just five games into UNC’s season. Inching past Portland — who played the Tar Heels significantly closer than Thursday’s 89-81 final score would indicate — is not in itself a crime; the Pilots make better than 36 percent of their 3s, and fittingly made 37.5 percent of them in this first-round game in the Phil Knight Invitational. Plus, as Davis noted postgame, Portland returned seven or eight players from last season, so it’s a seasoned roster. Sure. 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 game, the one with two preseason All-Americans — be a bit more imposing against a mid-tier West Coast Conference side?
?: Highlights from today’s 89-81 win ? Portland pic.twitter.com/rOfsWg8hR4
— Carolina Basketball (@UNC_Basketball) November 24, 2022
Of course it should — especially in, arguably, the Tar Heels’ best offensive game to date. For the first time this season, UNC shot better than 50 percent from the floor in both halves, and all five starters finished with double-digits. Shoot, Pete Nance had possibly the best performance of his 112-game college career: a team-high 28 points, including a career-high five 3-pointers, on 8-of-13 shooting. And yet, there North Carolina was, trailing with under five minutes left, still unable to flip that supposed switch.
“It needs to not take us, like, tough moments to be able to come together,” Nance said. “We’ve gotta be able to start in that cohesive way.”
He’s talking about on a game-by-game basis, but by this point? That sentiment also applies to UNC’s season so far. The Tar Heels simply haven’t had the toughness or tenacity that inspired last spring’s tournament run. Now, at this point, Davis would intervene and say — correctly so — that this isn’t the same group. And, he’s right. It isn’t. Nance is new, as is the freshman class, and figuring out how all those pieces fit was always going to take time. That much is understandable.
That the other four starters — the ones who know Davis’ personality, who previously played with that passion — can’t consistently muster the want-to they know it takes to win.
Which is why, while North Carolina’s ceiling is still the roof, this team isn’t the country’s clear-cut best right now. Great teams flip that switch the second the opening whistle sounds, topping their individual talent with grit. These Tar Heels have great talent, and some grit — but not nearly enough, and not with nearly enough frequency.
“The hunger and thirst has been 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 assuredly UNC fans, is that there are flashes. The Tar Heels ripped off a 12-0 run just over six minutes into the game, building a nine-point lead in the process … only to immediately allow a 10-0 Portland counter, which knotted things back up at 18. Same deal around halftime: North Carolina led by two, but had it not fouled a 3-point shooter with 3.8 seconds before intermission? Had it not allowed the Pilots to pull off a 15-6 run on the other side of that break? We’re talking about a totally different game. Those are the tiny inflection points where a proverbial throat-stomping can happen, when you put the whole darn thing out of reach right there. Except, as it hasn’t this season, North Carolina didn’t — or couldn’t. Instead, it let the Pilots believe, which built from there into a back-and-forth.
It’s not like individual dudes weren’t doing their part. Nance, normally on the nicer side, was visibly demonstrative during the game, clapping at teammates, bumping their chests. “Just trying to bring energy in any way I can,” he said. But, not to belabor the point, shouldn’t him having a full-on breakout game have meant more? Shouldn’t his teammates have seen that shooting magic, seen his focus and followed suit?
Same deal with Caleb Love, the king of no-no-yes shots his first two seasons in Chapel Hill. On the home floor of his favorite player, Damian Lillard, Love was as efficient as ever, turning down ridiculous or contested attempts for cleaner ones; he finished with 23 points on 10-of-15 shooting, including 3-of-4 from 3. Don’t you see that, if you’re on the floor with him, and want to get to the same level of locked-in-ness?
“It’s kinda like a domino effect,” Davis added. “Once one guy brings energy, then it kind of brings (it for) the whole team.”
That just wasn’t as pronounced against Portland, for whatever reason. And, hey, look: Ultimately, the Tar Heels stepped up when it mattered most. They got necessary stops late. Sunk free throws (despite uncharacteristically missing ten of them on the day) and honed in on the sorts of habits that contribute to winning.
You just would like to see them — as their head coach would — do those things from the opening tip and not just when the going gets tough.
This is not to say that Davis’ squad sucks, because it doesn’t. Clearly, it has all the requisite skill to be snipping down the nets in Houston come the first Monday in April. But compared to how scrappy this group was at its best last season, how it seemingly sought out street fights, this season’s iteration isn’t there yet. It looks disinterested, or in a daze, like it’s waiting for the real games to begin.
Well, they have. They’re here. Time to turn it on.
Because if North Carolina plays as poorly as it did Thursday the rest of the Phil Knight Invitational, it’s almost a guarantee it’ll get beaten. Even as is, watching wonderful starts nationwide from the likes of Houston and Arizona and Virginia, it’s clear UNC is unfit of being ranked No. 1 any longer.
Maybe that’s what this team needs: To let a little steam out of the pressure cooker, for guys to realize they aren’t going to be perfect every possession. Maybe that’ll show Davis’ squad it can’t just beat teams on paper; it actually has to punch them in the mouth on the floor.
“It’s interesting, you know, the position that we’re in; people have an expectation of how it should look,” Davis said. “We’re supposed to be up by 20 at halftime. We’re supposed to win every game by 30. No. We’re supposed to compete and play hard and continue to improve and see what kind of team we can become.”
Maybe that’s a team worthy of winning it all, of wearing that notable No. 1 next to its name. It very well could be. Probably should be.
But until UNC starts seeing things the way its head coach does — until it starts swinging again, the second it leaves the locker room — we won’t know what exactly this team is capable of.
(Photo of Pete Nance: Troy Wayrynen / USA Today)