When I say this season was the biggest disappointment in the history of my Tar Heel fandom, I still might be underselling it. Not once earlier this year did I imagine I would be in this position, recapping what was a colossal failure for the program. From preseason number one, to one Quad One win. From playing in last year’s National Championship, to getting an NIT bid. UNC, what happened?
Expectations Were High
Funny enough, they were in a familiar position last year as they sputtered down the stretch. Potentially missing out on March Madness after an embarrassing loss to Pittsburgh, they rallied together for an impressive late season run. They thwarted Duke in coach K’s last home game and won a must win game in the ACC tournament to lock in their position. While hope was slowly building, any realistic Tar Heel fan could tell you they did not expect what was to come next.
After dominating Marquette in the first round, gloom fell over the program as expectations were tempered against number one seed Baylor. UNC started out hot, yet allowed Baylor to come back and take it to overtime. UNC eventually pulled ahead, sparking a moral boost to their fanbase.
UNC then went on to get a comeback win against UCLA in the final minute in the Sweet Sixteen, as well as cruising past Cinderella St Peters in the Elite 8. After that victory, the much anticipated dream rematch has been set for the FInal Four. Duke vs UNC. Coach K’s last stand.
As someone who witnessed it in person, UNC beating Duke to send coach K off to the sunset was one of the most emotional moments in program history. The game was electric from start to finish, eventually being sealed by a Caleb Love three pointer. The buzzer rang, and Tar Heel fans rejoiced.
Caleb Love’s dagger against Duke.
— Victimus Prime (@DaNotoriousVIC_) October 17, 2022
The celebration on Bourbon Street was short lived as UNC went on to lose in the National Championship, yet expectations have been raised after what was a dream run. Especially during the course of the following offseason, a stretch of time that featured the much-anticipated news of Caleb Love, Rj Davis, Leaky Black, and Armando Bacot all returning for one more year. They made one last splash as they courted Northwestern transfer Pete Nance to fill in the gap that Brady Manek left.
So What Happened?
With the return of the core that led them to a Championship run, the media had their clear leader as a preseason number one pick. That only fueled the fire in Tar Heel nation, building hope with each passing calendar day until tipoff. If only I could go back in time and bottle that feeling. Little did I know that was the happiest I would be for the course of the season.
Hindsight is 20/20 when writing this months later, but looking back on it the Tar Heels never seemed to click from the start. They needed late second half runs to pull away from the likes of UNCW, Charleston, and Portland. The unsettling thoughts only ramped up as they followed that performance with losses to power schools Iowa State, Alabama, and Indiana. Still, the non-conference part of the schedule should always be taken with a grain of salt as teams rarely perform at the same level by season’s end. At least so I thought.
Abandoning the Tar Heel Identity
The roller coaster that was the Tar Heel season continued as they never seemed to round back into last year’s tournament form. The main culprit of their issues? They never played towards the Tar Heel identity. An identity that consisted of a fast paced offense, firing from deep, and crashing the offensive glass.
The shooting regression can at least be explained by the stat sheet as Caleb Love had a horrific shooting year with Pete Nance throwing up duds as well. Love has sort of played the wildcard role, constantly looking to get his own shot. While that worked for a bit last season, defenses wised up and played up on him more on the perimeter. Failing to counteract defensive pressure, Love continued to stall out the Tar Heels possessions with his 29.9% perimeter shooting.
Speaking of Nance, his emergence was nothing more than a constant headache as he never found his groove in the offense. He lacked awareness in the interior and brought on defensive attention towards Bacot by clogging the lane. Like Love, Nance never found consistency from the perimeter as he shot 32% from deep. He also had a tendency to take low quality shots, normally turning his post looks into fadeaways with a hand in his face.
As for the rebounding, Bacot still kept a high motor in the interior and relentlessly crashed the glass. While second chance points ran through him, it was the other end of the court that seemed to go missing. Normally after grabbing a defensive rebound, UNC would get out in a track meet and exploit the gaps in transition. This year they settled for more halfcourt sets while running at a slower pace, dipping to 101st in Adjusted Tempo per Kenpom.
While the shooting can be explained by poor shot selections, the rest of the Tar Heel issues reside on coach Hubert Davis shoulders. While I don’t actually think he is already on the hot seat, he will now at least be on thin ice should he not bounce back next season.
A major issue I had with him was his late game play calling. Especially after a game that featured Love failing to get into a groove over 38 minutes, still calling his number to try and seal the game with an isolation play. It didn’t work. It never worked. Go back and watch the Alabama game and sit in frustration with how forced his looks were in late game situations.
Expecting that was just going to be the norm as Caleb Love used to be an all-world talent, Hubert then followed up with a play call that still keeps me up at night. In a must win situation against Notre Dame late in the year, Hubert Davis out of a timeout ran a play that featured Leaky Black as the primary ball handler at halfcourt. Driving to the rim for a potential game winner, not passing once. A freak athlete, yet a liability on offense with no consistent jumper or finishing ability. I might have overreacted during it.
Hubert Davis just ran a play off the timeout with Leaky Black as the ball handler one on one to the rim. Fire him immediately. Even if they win. Even if they win the natty. Fireable offense. That was just…wow
— Kody Malstrom (@kmalstrom) February 23, 2023
The last thread of hope has been snapped once UNC lost to Virginia. Finally free from the pain this season, we can now look forward to March Madness with no worry of witnessing one last UNC clunker as they are NIT bound.
Hubert Davis will have his work cut out for him in the offseason. Needing to find a way to replace the lost production of Bacot, Love, and Davis with expectations of them moving on in their careers.
The transfer portal has been a viable tool, as well as showing signs of elite recruitment under his tutelage. The Tar Heel name will always be a powerhouse for years to come, giving me solace that this bump in the road will be fixed sooner than later.