By Adam Lucas
FORT WORTH—Nearly four months ago, Hubert Davis made an important statement.
After Carolina dropped two games in Uncasville, Conn., Davis told his team, “I will never again coach a team absent of my personality.”
What is that personality, exactly? That’s what we’ve spent this season learning. But Thursday’s 95-63 thrashing of Marquette in the NCAA Tournament first round is a pretty good window into what the ideal disposition might be.
Carolina shot the ball well. Caleb Love was terrific in the first half, draining six three-pointers, and Brady Manek was almost equally good in the second half, finishing with 28 points. Twenty-nine of Carolina’s 34 baskets were assisted (the highest percentage of assisted field goals in the program’s NCAA Tournament history), led by RJ Davis with 12. Davis had at least one assist to everyone who was on the court with him, handing out buckets to six different Tar Heels. Leaky Black was sensational on defense against Marquette’s Justin Lewis, limiting him to a 2-for-15 shooting performance. Armando Bacot broke the school single-season rebounding record.
So it was a pretty win. A historic amount of Carolina offense in multiple ways, the biggest 8 vs 9 win in NCAA Tournament history, very nearly postseason biscuits for the first time since 2017, which was a very good year.
But the offense is not the most important part of this game.
We all knew the Tar Heels had the ability to shoot the ball as well as they did on Thursday. What we might not have been so sure about—what was being questioned even a month ago—was whether they were tough enough to stand up to a team that clearly wanted to push them around.
Marquette pushed. They did it metaphorically and they did it literally, including Darryl Morsell bodying Caleb Love into a backcourt violation in the first half. Shaka Smart came into today with a 3-0 record against Carolina, and it was plainly evident he was working off the same scouting report that had been successful before—be more physical than the Tar Heels.
The fatal flaw, though, was that Hubert Davis had anticipated that strategy as soon as the matchup was announced on Sunday evening. That night, standing in his den, he told his team they would have to be more physical than Marquette. And every single day since that night, he’s emphasized the same outlook:
“There are three kinds of people: Those who don’t want to fight, those who do want to fight, and those who are looking for a fight.”
Before Carolina left the locker room on Thursday, Davis reminded them, “I want 17 guys in this locker room who are looking for a fight when we go out there.”
And they did. Carolina very effectively beat Marquette at its own game. By halftime, Morsell was paying more attention to Love than to his own team, Smart was chirping at Love from the Marquette huddle…oh, and Carolina had a 28-point lead.
“It’s not about X’s and O’s with them,” Leaky Black said after the game on the Tar Heel Sports Network. “It’s about being tough with them.”
Davis personified that tough mindset all week. On Tuesday, he stopped practice barely five minutes into the session when a Tar Heel missed a layup in a simple fast break drill.
The Carolina head coach immediately sent everyone to the baseline for some sprints. “So that’s how we’re going to start practice?” he asked. “Practice for the NCAA Tournament? This is North Carolina. We don’t do that.”
For most of the week, Davis seemed personally offended that Marquette would actually try to push his team around. Keep in mind that no one from Marquette had actually articulated that particular belief. Davis just knew that they believed it, and wanted his team to be as miffed as he was.
How much of a chip did he have on his shoulder this week? In Thursday’s pregame interview, he mentioned that he was still angry over the 1977 national championship game loss to Marquette. He was six years old when that game was played. Yes, Hubert Davis is still mad about a game that was played 45 years ago.
Here is a secret: that’s how you stay in the NBA for 12 years. Davis could shoot and Davis was a great teammate but, behind that smile and that infectious laugh and the pleasant disposition…Hubert Davis desperately wants to beat everybody.
“If someone is trying to push us around, we’re going to push back,” he said. “If they elbow us, we elbow back. If they kick us, we kick back. I’ve been clear and definitive with the guys about what we need to do on the floor. There have been a number of times guys have tried to push us around. The only way to change the narrative is to swing back or be the first one to swing.”
That sounds just a little like Davis’ old Knicks teams. It wasn’t just a win in Hubert Davis‘first ever game as an NCAA Tournament head coach. It wasn’t just a win that was Carolina’s 25th victory of the season.
It was a win with just the right amount of personality.