UNC basketball hopes Final 4 experience pays off this season

North Carolina's Leaky Black holds up a 2022 Final Four banner after being introduced during “Live Action with Carolina Basketball” at the Dean E. Smith Center on Friday, Oct. 7, 2022, in Chapel Hill, NC

North Carolina’s Leaky Black holds up a 2022 Final Four banner after being introduced during “Live Action with Carolina Basketball” at the Dean E. Smith Center on Friday, Oct. 7, 2022, in Chapel Hill, NC

North Carolina men’s basketball players worked on individual drills Tuesday when coach Hubert Davis watched them miss back-to-back uncontested layups. He let those slide. Until junior guard Caleb Love made it three in a row.

It sets Davis off. He feels the entire team to the baseline to sprint out their complacency.

They were all smiles and laughs when recalling it on the dais at the ACC men’s basketball media day Wednesday in Charlotte. Because they fully understand why it was necessary.

“I missed the third layup, that kind of ticked him off and so it was actually great to see,” Love said. “He can call me out on anything if I mess up or if I’m making a mistake.”

Love said it just spoke to how Davis is holding the Tar Heels accountable entering his second season at the helm. The Heels carry a lot of lofty expectations into the season after their run to the NCAA title game last April ended just minutes shy of a seventh NCAA championship banner.

Carolina will likely be voted the ACC favorite when the poll is released next week and quite possibly the preseason No. 1 in The Associated Press poll for the 10th time in program history.

That’s the new “outside noise” Davis is mentioning to his team. Last year, the noise was negative criticism because of the early blowout losses they endured. This year, it’s too much praise because of what they accomplished last season.

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North Carolina men’s basketball head coach Hubert Davis waves to the crowd during “Live Action with Carolina Basketball” at the Dean E. Smith Center on Friday, Oct. 7, 2022, in Chapel Hill, NC Kaitlin McKeown

“The things that I’ve talked about to the team a number of times daily, is that there’s negative noise — and that’s criticism — and there’s positive noise — and that’s praise,” Davis said. “Even though they come from different directions, they’re still noise. Focus on what is real — our preparation, our practice — and at the end of the day, we’ll be happy with the results.”

Davis said he has taken a similar approach to his second season as he did the first. A copy of NRG Stadium in Houston, the site of the 2023 Final Four, was placed in everyone’s locker just like the SuperDome in New Orleans was this time last year.

The difference for Carolina is, it’s no longer just a building on a piece of paper. The Heels’ experience in the Final Four is more motivating now than the picture itself.

UNC senior forward Armando Bacot had played on a team that wouldn’t have made the 2020 NCAA tournament and a team that lost in the first round for the first time in coach Roy Williams’ career.

Bacot said getting so close to winning it all last season, more than anything else, has shaped how the team approached this season.

“It just made us hungry,” Bacot said. “Once you go and play in those big moments you believe in yourself even more.”

The Heels return six of the seven players who logged time in the national championship game including four starters. They’re relying on that experience in helping carry them back.

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North Carolina’s Armando Bacot is greeted by fans after being introduced during “Live Action with Carolina Basketball” at the Dean E. Smith Center on Friday, Oct. 7, 2022, in Chapel Hill, NC Kaitlin McKeown

Historically, Carolina has had a pattern of bouncing back after losing in the Final Four. It lost in the 1981 title game, before winning it all in 1982. It lost in the 2008 semifinals before capturing the 2009 title. And most recently, it lost at the buzzer in 2016 only for “redemption” in winning the 2017 national championship.

“We know exactly what it takes to get there,” Love said. “Coming into this season, we know exactly how locked in we have to be and the level of seriousness that comes with that. Every time we step on the court — whether it’s conditioning, weight room, practice, whatever the case may be — we know exactly what to do.”

That’s not to say they won’t need the occasional reminder provided by a quick trip to the line for sprints. But Davis has the ultimate reminder by using examples of how they played during their Final Four run. This time when he talks about it, the players don’t have to imagine. They understand because they experienced it.

“Now they know,” Davis said. “Like I don’t have to tell them. They know if they’re practicing hard enough, if they’re preparing hard enough. They know what it’s going to take just to have a chance. And that’s the cool thing about it, they already know.”

This story was originally published October 13, 2022 5:40 AM.

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CL Brown covers the University of North Carolina for The News & Observer. Brown brings more than two decades of reporting experience including stints as the beat writer on Indiana University and the University of Louisville. After a long stay at the Louisville Courier-Journal, where he earned an APSE award, he’s had stops at ESPN.com, The Athletic and even tried his hand at running his own website, clbrownhoops.com.

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