Friedlander: UNC, Hubert Davis need a fresh start, not another shot at redemption
Mike Krzyzewski used to say that the mark of a successful season, regardless of the record, was if there were tears in the locker room after the final game.
The show of emotion told the retired Duke coach just how invested his players were in their team and how hard they had competed for one another.
It’s a belief that offers at least a small bit of context to North Carolina’s decision Sunday to decline an invitation to extend its season by playing in the National Invitation Tournament.
There were no tears in the Tar Heels’ locker room 3 days earlier, after their ACC Tournament quarterfinal loss to Virginia.
There wasn’t any anger, either.
Just a group of players staring blankly at the floor, some with towels draped over their heads, quietly answering questions from the horde of media gathered around them in muted monotones. It was almost as if they were relieved that their ordeal was finally over.
“I feel kind of numb right now,” was how graduate forward Leaky Black described it.
The pressure of expectations, which had been building since Black and 3 other starters decided to return for another shot at the national championship that barely eluded them a year ago, turned out to be too heavy a burden to bear.
But that was only part of the reason why UNC became the 1st preseason No. 1 to miss out on the NCAA Tournament.
The other half of the equation is that Hubert Davis’ team simply wasn’t that good.
It stumbled through most of the 2021-22 season teetering on the edge of the NCAA bubble until catching fire at just the right time and benefitting from some bracket luck once the tournament began.
Then, instead of picking up where it left off in New Orleans, the Tar Heels reverted back to the norm this season.
They looked good at times. But at 20-13 with a 7th-place finish in a lightly regarded ACC, they weren’t good enough for long enough to earn an opportunity at producing another round of postseason magic.
With their stated goal of “championship or bust” having gone up in flames more spectacularly than the Hindenburg, there was no reason for them to prolong the agony by participating in a tournament few really care about or notice.
Better to give up the spot to a team that actually wants to keep playing and to whom even a consolation championship is important.
“We didn’t have the year we hoped we’d have, for a variety of reasons,” UNC athletic director Bubba Cunningham said on the school’s Carolina Insider podcast. “So, we said just take a deep breath. Let’s really take a deep, deep dive into the program and see what we need to fix so that we can get better.
“This gives us a little bit more time to do it. Sometimes it’s disappointing when you don’t want to continue the season. But in this case, I think it’s absolutely the right thing for us to be doing right now.”
Tar Heels choose not to participate in 2023 NIT.
— Carolina Basketball (@UNC_Basketball) March 12, 2023
It’s understandable for the Tar Heels to want to put this season behind them as quickly as possible. The process of moving forward, however, won’t truly be able to begin until Davis knows exactly what he’ll have left to work with.
Freshman forward Tyler Nickel and seldom-used graduate wing Justin McKoy have already entered the NCAA transfer portal. Considering their lack of playing time and development, it’s almost certain that at least some of their fellow bench players — a group that includes Seth Trimble, Dontrez Styles, D’Marco Dunn and Jalen Washington — will soon join them.
Not everyone is doing wind sprints toward the door though.
Both senior center Armando Bacot and junior guard RJ Davis have dropped hints that they’re thinking about returning for 2023-24, while Davis’ backcourt mate, Caleb Love, also has eligibility remaining.
As admirable as their loyalty to UNC might be, sticking around for another shot at redemption isn’t a good idea for anyone concerned.
The pressure on the players isn’t going to go away just because someone else is ranked No. 1 to start next season and their earning potential from name, image and likeness won’t be diminished should they decide to play elsewhere.
Their coach also deserves a fresh start.
Davis’ 1st 2 seasons on the job have been spent working with a team constructed largely by his predecessor, Roy Williams, with a core group that barely made it to the NCAA Tournament the year before he took over.
Though he shoulders as much of the blame for this season’s failure as the players, it would be unfair to judge his ability to lead the program — as some Tar Heels fans are already doing on social media — until he has a chance to work with his own players, specifically recruited to fit his preferred style.
Better to blow it up and start over than to run it back again.
That might make for some uncomfortable discussions and heartfelt goodbyes. But like the decision to opt out of the NIT, few if any tears are likely to be shed.