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ACC Preview #1 - UNC

Will this be the defining season of Hubert Davis’s UNC career?

North Carolina v Virginia
UNC’s Hubert Davis isn’t exactly on the hot seat, but there are probably some fans who are ready to heat it up.
Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

What to make of Hubert Davis’s time as UNC’s coach?

That’s a tough call, isn’t it?

In his first year, Davis struggled to get his team’s attention before the Tar Heels rallied late and made a run to the national championship game, dealing Duke a loss in Mike Krzyzewski’s final game in Cameron and then again in the Final Four.

UNC fans were understandably high as a kite after that, but last year brought them crashing back down to earth in a surreal flameout.

Picked as the pre-season #1 team, the Tar Heels had a season-long fall from grace, ultimately failing to make the tournament at all. UNC was the first team ever to be ranked #1 pre-season that fell that far and hard.

A lot of people blamed Caleb Love, who was the hero of the two big wins over Duke in the 2021-22 season. That’s fair to an extent - Love absolutely lacked discretion and would fire up a three as often as most people blink. That’s an exaggeration obviously but his offensive promiscuity cost the Tar Heels dearly.

However, you have to ask this question: why did he do that? Was it because he was just a terrible teammate? Or did he feel it was necessary? Or were there other problems?

Of course it wasn’t just Love. UNC just didn't have much fight all year and by the end, it looked like they were all sick of each other and ready for the season to be over.

And of course Love is not a concern for UNC fans anymore. He tried to transfer to Michigan, but apparently, admissions didn’t “love” his transcript - hard to imagine for a UNC athlete, we know - so he ended up in Tucson where he now toils for Tommy Lloyd.

He wasn’t the only defector; far from it.

Puff Johnson (Penn State) is gone, as are D’Marco Dunn (also Penn State), Justin McKoy (Hawaii), Tyler Nickel (Virginia Tech), Will Shaver (UAB) and Dontrez Styles (Georgetown).

Even with the new transfer rule, that’s huge amount of instability. Neither coach has enough experience to make a fair comparison, but even so, over in Durham, Jon Scheyer had no transfers this past season.

However, UNC does return some useful players, notably Armando Bacot, now in his fifth, or possibly 10th season. At least it seems that way. He’s been a load in the post his entire career, but his lack of versatility translates into a lack of interest from the NBA.

RJ Davis is also back, and while he’s smallish, the 6-0 senior is a smart and resourceful player who knows what to do in a clutch situation. He reputedly had some issues with Love - you may have heard the rumors - but whatever it was, that backcourt never gelled. A high school teammate of former Blue Devil AJ Griffin, Davis is a dangerous, intelligent and highly competitive opponent. We expect a big bounce back season from him.

Seth Trimble also returns and the 6-3 sophomore certainly had his moments last season, starting occasionally. He may move back in the rotation, but he’s still someone to keep an eye on.

And while big man Jalen Washington had limited moments as he continued to recover from a high school knee injury, he was highly regarded coming up in Gary, Indiana. We saw him briefly in Cameron and let’s say he made an impression. He has The Look, if you will. Still has to justify that, but he could be a handful if he’s healthy.

And that’s about it for a legendary program: seven out, four back.

However, the portal taketh and the portal giveth too as UNC brings in five transfers: Cormac Ryan from Notre Dame, Jae’Lyn Withers from Louisville, Paxson Wojcik from Brown, James Okonkwo from West Virginia and Harrison Ingram from Stanford.

Cormac Ryan is the most familiar transfer to most ACC fans. He excelled in Mike Brey’s brilliant offensive system at Notre Dame and is a dangerous shooter. He’s not freakishly athletic but we’d prefer him over what we saw from the vastly more talented Love. Ryan is hard-nosed and smart. UNC’s backcourt is a bit crowded but he has to see minutes. He’s too good to not play.

Withers endured a terrible season at Louisville and maybe things will be better at UNC. But keep in mind that he had the chance to excel for the Cardinals, with minimal competition for minutes, but only managed 8.9 ppg, 5.3 rpg and shot just 43.3 percent overall (he did shoot 41.7 percent from behind the line, which is pretty good). He could obviously help, but given that he wasn’t any better than he was at Louisville when that team desperately needed help, it’s hard to make a case for him being great in Chapel Capel Hill. Davis has put a real emphasis on three point shooting, and that might be a role for Withers, somewhat like Brady Manek two years ago, but Withers probably lacks Manek’s impressive mean streak.

Wojcik, who is the son of former UNC assistant Doug Wojcik, comes to UNC from Brown, not your usual path to Carolina basketball. However he started at Loyola, transferring when Porter Moser took off for Oklahoma, and was also recruited by some solid schools out of well-respected LaLumiere, not least of all Notre Dame.

A 6-5 guard, Wojcik didn’t shoot particularly well but he did average 3.2 apg and more strikingly, 7.2 rpg (that’s a lot better than the much taller Withers did at Louisville, and with such a crappy Cardinal offense, he had a lot of chances to rebound). Wojcik should be a fun matchup when UNC plays Wake Forest and he goes against Cameron Hildreth. Keep an eye on that.

Harrison Ingram is this year’s Great Transfer Hope. He left Stanford just ahead of the collapse of the PAC-12 and although not a phenomenal athlete, he’s legitimately good. At one point, he was seen as a possible one-and-done at Stanford.

He’s a really smart player who can give Davis a sort of point forward and help him with his goal of modernizing UNC’s system. He’s probably going to start and if he can work out some kinks in his game, get back in the conversation as an NBA player. Jury’s still out on that for now.

James Okonkwo turned up quite late after the bizarre and unseemly end to the Bob Huggins era at West Virginia.

To recap, Huggins was pulled over for drunk driving and was extremely intoxicated. His career ended at West Virginia in a bizarre back-and-forth with the university and a number of his players left, including Okonkwo.

A native of Maidenhead England, just outside of London, we think the 6-9 Okonkwo is the third current UK citizen in the ACC this season, with the other two being Wake’s Hildreth and Matthew Marsh.

Stats can be overrated, and Okonkwo’s were minimal, but we found a picture of him blocking a shot with his hand at the top of the square, so consider yourself forewarned. We’re pretty sure that Bacot can’t get up there. Okonkwo could be a big help on defense.

That brings us to the freshmen and there are only two, but they’re pretty good: Elliot Cadeau and Zayden High.

The 6-0 Cadeau was a highly sought-after point guard out of West Orange, New Jersey, also the hometown of Foster-era Blue Devil Harold Morrison and, more recently, Kyrie Irving. Originally due next year, Cadeau reclassified.

An excellent passer, it’s hard to imagine Cadeau not starting, but that will give UNC two 6-0 guards, which could be an issue defensively.

He’s pushing to be a one-and-done player and we’re not saying he can’t. But there aren’t a lot of 6-0 guards in the NBA anymore and we’re not sure any of them are teenagers. That said, players are players and if he can do it, more power to him.

Cadeau, American-born, has an interesting background. His father is Haitian and his mother is Swedish. That means he could have theoretically played internationally for three countries, but he’s been competing for Sweden.

If you’ve read here for a while, you know we’re really skeptical about high school rankings. There are a few guys periodically who are going to be really good - think Zion Williamson, Paolo Banchero and Cooper Flagg if things continue to go his way - but as Purdue’s Matt Painter said, once you get past a few elite, it’s really a crap shoot.

So we’re not sure yet what to make of Zayden High. He’s big - 6-10 - and seen as a four-star. He’s said he takes pride in doing the little things, which not everyone is willing to do. He’s going to be competing for minutes with Withers, Ingram, Washington and Ingram, and all of them are going to be secondary to Bacot in the front court.

So after a tough off-season, it looks like UNC has at least rebuilt a decent roster and they won’t have to deal with Love anymore.

They have depth in the front court and backcourt and some pretty good talent. As of now, we’d guess that Bacot, Davis, Cadeau and Ingram will start, with the fifth regular TBD. It’s an interesting question though. UNC has historically started two big men. Davis has as well, but in his case, he used Manek, who was an outstanding three point shooter, and Pete Nance, who wasn’t as successful from long range.

Manek made it impossible to double-team Bacot. Nance just kind of muddled things. It’s going to be really interesting to see who gets that spot. Withers? Possibly. Washington? We could see that, assuming his knee is good now. Okonkwo? Probably not, unless his defense is superb. High? Jury’s out.

What about Ryan? He’s hard-nosed and at 6-5, he’s not tiny. He’s an excellent shooter too, which would free up Bacot, but that with Davis and Cadeau, that would mean three undersized defenders. Ryan and Ingram are intriguing together, but the defensive issues would be tough.

The backcourt will be interesting too. It’s hard to imagine anyone other than Davis and Cadeau starting, but Trimble showed solid potential last year. Ryan is going to play somewhere and Wojcik probably is too. But the harsh reality is that Wojik is disposable. If he can’t compete at UNC’s level, then he’s just a one-and-done on the other end.

We’re not sure what to expect from UNC this year, and that’s partly because, after two mostly erratic seasons, we’re not sure what to expect from Davis.

After this season though, we should have some idea of who the real Hubert Davis is.

Well let’s modify that.

We do have some idea of who the real Hubert Davis is: unquestionably, he’s a kind and decent man. No one questions that. Even as a player, he was one of those UNC guys that other fan bases can’t really hate. He’s a good guy.

But is he a good coach? For at least a partial answer to that, we can turn to Tucson.

Why Tucson? Because that’s where Love is now, and if he suddenly turns into a disciplined, smart and dangerous player, that will tell us what we need to know: that he wasn’t well coached in Chapel Capel Hill. For that matter, keep an eye on the other six transfers for the same basic pattern: if they start suddenly excelling, things will be interesting down 15-501.

In his first season, Davis got his Tar Heels to the championship game, but don’t forget that that team was 12-6 in January and was best defined by an exasperated fan yelling, quite loudly during a Dean Dome game, “come ON, Hubert!”

You could argue that he lost his team last year, probably some fan support too, and had no idea how to build on the championship run despite having four starters back.

If it turns out that getting hot in his first season was a fluke and that Davis ends up with three mostly mediocre seasons, the UNC faithful are going to say he’s one of theirs so yes, of course they love him, but he needs to go. And the campaign to bring Cincinnati’s Wes Miller home to Chapel Hill will go from whispers to roars.