Hubert Davis finding Roy's shoes surprisingly easy to fill
PHILADELPHIA — Conventional wisdom dictates that you never want to be the guy who follows the legend.
But North Carolina has a way of turning convention on its head.
Bill Guthridge did the unexpected in his first year replacing Dean Smith, leading the Tar Heels to the Final Four in 1998. Now Hubert Davis is on the verge of doing the same in his first year taking over for Roy Williams.
No. 15 seed Saint Peter’s is all that stands in the way of North Carolina’s 21st Final Four appearance.
Davis admits that it helps to have essentially 70 years worth of foundation in place.
“The foundation of Carolina basketball will never go away as long as I am here, and the reason being is because it’s been tried and tested and proven successful,” Davis said. “And I’ve gone through it and I believe in it.”
Davis may be a new head coach, but his relationship with Carolina goes back to when his uncle Walter played for Smith in the 1970s. All he’s had to do in Year 1 is add a few personal touches onto what he’s always known.
“I’ve always also felt like even though that I believe in what Coach Smith and Coach Guthridge and Coach Williams, I have to do this with my own personality and in my own shoes, so that’s what I have done,” Davis said. “There’s been some tweaks, some pivots, some changes in how we do things on and off the court, but all of those tweaks and pivots and changes have been consistent with the foundation of what this place is all about.
“And it’s about relationships, it’s about family, it’s about playing hard and playing smart and playing together.”
Quality mentors beget quality results
It doesn’t hurt to have learned from the best, which Davis has.
He played for Smith at North Carolina, then Pat Riley in the NBA. That’s a solid way to sharpen one’s basketball IQ.
“The thing I learned from Coach Riley is how hard you have to prepare to put yourself in a position to possibly be successful,” Davis said. “He taught me how to be a pro, how to practice, how to compete on every play, shootaround, practice, games. And he really put me in a position to be the best player that I could be in the NBA.
“He’s one of my favorite coaches that I’ve ever played for, and I think about my time with him as a player and use parts of what he taught me to try to teach these guys every day.”
Davis the coach was further developed by Williams, serving as Roy’s assistant for 9 seasons before earning a promotion.
“Just having a front-row seat to see how Coach Williams does everything — making decisions, putting together practice plans, relationships with players, personnel, recruiting,” Davis said. “For 9 years, I got a chance to just watch the greatest coach that I’ve ever been around.”
It also helps that Davis technically isn’t a first-year head coach. North Carolina is among the dwindling number of schools to have a junior varsity team, and Davis was able to cut his teeth coaching that unit.
“Obviously it’s on a much lesser scale, but I did have to go through practice and we had games, we had substitutions. In a lot less way, I had to make decisions,” Davis said. “And I think that’s the biggest difference between being an assistant and a head coach.
“As an assistant, you’re always making suggestions. As a head coach, you’re always making decisions.”
Making it come together at the right time
Anyone can have the right teachers, but they could still prove to be a shaky student.
The verdict remained unclear on Davis for much of this season. Most bracketologists didn’t consider the Tar Heels an NCAA Tournament lock until they won at Duke in the regular-season finale, ruining Mike Krzyzewski’s final game at Cameron Indoor.
Davis has done an expert job of responding to the various disappointments of this season and getting the Heels to always turn a corner. More than Xs and Os, it’s been about helping his first-team find its personality.
“This has been a year of newness,” Davis said. “New head coach, new coaching staff, 3 new players, transfers, 2 new freshmen. Some tweaks, pivots, changes in our style, both offensively and defensively.
“I know that everybody wants everything to fit perfectly in November and December, and it just takes time. I just felt like the shared experiences and the time that we’ve spent on and off the court has allowed us to grow together, to understand each other, to accept each other, to see the gifts and talents that all of us — different gifts and talents that we all bring to the table that allow us to collectively be the best that we can be, and we’re settled now.
“We’re in a place of togetherness because of time shared together. I just really feel like that’s the biggest thing that has allowed us to be at our best right now.”