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North Carolina Saw You Laughing. Who’s Laughing Now?

North Carolina celebrates
Dan McQuade/Defector

PHILADELPHIA It seems silly to talk about North Carolina as an underdog. Their starting five this year were all top recruits. Leaky Black was the 71st-ranked recruit by one service in 2018. Armando Bacot, from sports factory IMG Academy, was 27th the next year. Caleb Love was 14th and R.J. Davis was 50th in 2020. Brady Manek, an Oklahoma transfer before last season, was 117th coming out of high school. Puff Johnson, the only other guy to get real minutes on Sunday night, was ranked 69th in 2020. Everyone on this team was a blue-chipper.

But these players hadn’t put up blue-chip results yet. When Roy Williams retired, he’d been coming off a 14-19 season in 2020 and an 18-11 season in 2021. New coach Hubert Davis had been Williams’s assistant for a decade. He’d been groomed for the job. It took him only a couple of games have to defend himself. “You ask what needs to change?” he said after Tennessee shellacked UNC in November. “Everything needs to change.” Things were shaky enough in December that ESPN was calling up Matt Doherty, who flamed out at UNC after three years in the early 2000s, to get his thoughts on the weight of being a coach following a legend at UNC.

And though the Tar Heels looked pretty good in ACC play this year, they weren’t even a lock for the NCAA tournament until late in the season. I mean, they lost at home to Pittsburgh. The Athletic’s Bubble Watch put them in the “work to do” category; Eamonn Brennan said a loss in Mike Krzyzewski’s Cameron Indoor Stadium finale would put them squarely on the bubble. North Carolina then ruined Coach K’s farewell party, and won its first game in the ACC tournament to solidify a bid. Still, the Tar Heels were an 8-seed—same as last year, when Wisconsin beat them by 23.

Manek (28 points) and Love (23 points) shot the lights out in the Tar Heels’ 95-63 victory in the first round. In the second, the Tar Heels were up by 25 on No. 1 seed Baylor, but Manek got ejected for an elbow, Love fouled out and the Bears came back to force overtime. No matter. Freshman Dontrez Styles (2021’s 66th-ranked recruit) opened the overtime with just his third three of the season, and Love scored the last of his 30 points on a three-point play with 1:18 left that essentially ended it.

“I just felt like the narrative with this group was that they weren’t tough, they weren’t resilient … this wasn’t a team of perseverance,” Davis said before the Sweet 16. “I have motivated them and challenged them to change the narrative of us not being competitive and competing and shying away from physicality. It's something that I wanted them to embrace, and I wanted it to be a part of our team.”

The Heels had a lot of top recruits, but they weren’t tough. That was the story Hubert Davis was hearing, at least. Again: Pittsburgh was so bad this year, and North Carolina lost big to them at home. I can see why people might question the team’s competitiveness. But they really dialed it in for the tourney. Davis talked all weekend in press conferences about being a defensive-first team. But it's been the offense that's carried the Tar Heels this far. They scored north of 90 in their first two games. UCLA led often on Friday night, but North Carolina always seemed to an answer any time the Bruins looked like they might pull away. UCLA led by eight in the first half; North Carolina answered with back to back threes. When UCLA had the advantage late, Caleb Love hit consecutive triples to put the Heels ahead for good. He had 30. Honestly, this is an offensive team!

“UCLA is a great defensive team,” Davis said after Friday’s win. “We had set plays that were able to pick apart the defense and get the mismatches we wanted. I think I did a good job of finding open teammates, and I knew when Caleb was hot to him keep going. I told him keep going. I gave him the pull at one point and then he just hit like four in a row, I think it was. It was a great run.”

The victory over Saint Peter’s that put them in the Final Four was a rout from the jump on both sides of the ball, though. UNC took advantage of a bunch of early Peacock shooting struggles, got good looks and knocked them down. When they missed, Armando Bacot was there to clean up the glass—he had five offensive rebounds in the first half alone. It was 38-19 at halftime; the game was basically over. Bacot finished with 22 boards and 20 points.

“It's been a wild 11 and a half months,” Davis said about his postgame tears. “And I’ve said a number of times it’s been so busy the last 11 and a half months—I haven't really had time to think. And it was the first time that I can remember in the last 11 and a half months that I could take a deep breath, and it just came out. It's not just this year. It's everything. What this job has meant to me, how it’s impacted my wife and my kids, the players, their parents, recruiting. It’s just been a lot. And when I finally could take a deep breath and it looked like we were going to win, I just couldn't hold it in.”

Not every set of top recruits becomes a great team; UNC only gelled into one over the last few weeks. In retrospect it wasn't that silly for anyone to think North Carolina didn't have it this year. But on Sunday night, Tar Heels players admitted: They saw it. They didn’t like it. Now they’re in the Final Four.

“It’s been a roller coaster the past few years, being laughed at on social media,” Black said. “It feels good to get the last laugh right here, but we’re not done yet.”

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