DG MARTIN COLUMN: Bad news for Tar Heel basketball?

What is the bad news for UNC-Chapel Hill’s basketball team?

They are ranked No. 1 in the preseason polls, and a high rank in the early polls can be a setup for bitter disappointment when the regular season doesn’t turn out so well.

D.G. Martin

Better maybe to be ranked low at the beginning and outperform expectations during the season.

Last year the Tar Heels were ranked No. 19 in the AP preseason poll, and there were times during the season they didn’t make the top 25.

Some folks were ready to give up on the team, the players, and the coach.

That would have been a big mistake. A new book, elegantly designed and distributed by UNC Press will be available in November. “Together: The Amazing Story of Carolina Basketball’s 2021-2022 Season” tells how the new coach, Hubert Davis, and his underappreciated and assorted group of players struggled through the season, sometimes with mixed results. Then at the end they brought it all together, concluding the season as the close runner-up to Kansas in the NCAA finals, only a hair’s breadth away from a national championship, compiling a 29-10 season record.

Davis played at Carolina, had a career in the pros, then worked as a reporter and commentator for ESPN, before becoming an assistant to Hall of Fame UNC (and Kansas) coach Roy Williams. Then, as Tar Heel head basketball coach, Davis led his team through his surprisingly successful first season.

How did it happen? The authors of the new book — Adam LucasSteve Kirschner and Matt Bowers — work for UNC athletics. All are close to the Tar Heel basketball program, especially Lucas who is a columnist on GoHeels.com and author of eight books about Carolina basketball. Together they are great storytellers, as they tell the multiple stories that explain the basketball team’s amazing success in ways that take the book’s readers on the team’s and Davis’ journey.

The authors believe that Davis’ experience and his earned reputation for character, honesty, caring and respect for his players were key factors in the team’s development. Their image of Davis is one of “a relentlessly positive optimist who guided his team with a pat on the back and steady encouragement.”

They note that he made it through the season without cursing one time.

The book also examines the background, struggles, and contributions of five of the team’s important players: Leaky Black, Brady Manek, Caleb Love, RJ Davis and Armando Bacot.

Senior Leaky Black’s heroic efforts earned him All-ACC Defensive Team honors.

Coach Davis found key graduate transfer Manek using a Google search “2021 college basketball best transfer portal players.”

Midway through the season Davis changed the offense for guards Caleb Love and RJ Davis, both full of talent but not playing up to potential. After the coach’s offensive adjustment, RJ Davis “assumed most of the ball-handling responsibilities. That left Love free to roam the perimeter as a scorer and relieved him of some point guard duties.”

Bacot adapted to the changes, finding he was getting the ball closer to the basket.

The authors describe the memorable Tar Heels’ run to the finals of the NCAA tournament, but the most poignant and best-told story is the March 5, 2022, victory over Duke. “It was a game for the ages,” they write, “but not as most had planned.”

Although there were elaborately planned ceremonies to honor retiring Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski on the assumption that Duke would score a crushing victory, the Tar Heels emerged from Cameron Indoor Stadium with a convincing 94-81 victory.

Coach Davis “knew exactly how he wanted his team to celebrate.” He wanted them to see what would happen on Franklin Street.

RJ Davis remembered the scene. “I get goose bumps thinking about it. It puts a smile on your face for the rest of the night, and it really makes you realize that you made history.”

Thanks to the authors of “Together,” RJ Davis’s memories of that special night and that special season will be secure forever.

D.G. Martin, a lawyer, served as UNC-System’s vice president for public affairs and hosted PBS-NC’s “North Carolina Bookwatch.”