By R.L. Bynum
As a new head coach with five new players, Hubert Davis expected that might take a while for him to figure out the best roles for every player and for the players to show in practice which roles best suit them.
Some have adapted quickly while others are still trying to work their way in the rotation.
At the top of the list for adapting and thriving in their role is Leaky Black. It’s still a work in progress for sophomore guard Kerwin Walton, junior transfer Justin McKoy and freshmen De’Marco Dunn and Dontrez Styles.
“It takes time to build relationships,” Davis said. “It takes time to figure each other out out there on the floor. And I feel like every day we’re becoming more comfortable with each other out there on the floor. And we spend a lot of time together off the court.”
Carolina (8–2) was scheduled to face UCLA (8–1) in the CBS Sports Classic in Las Vegas at 3 p.m. Saturday. But UCLA had its game Thursday with Alabama State canceled because of COVID-19 issues and, on Friday, the matchup with UNC was canceled.
The Tar Heels will face No. 21 Kentucky (7–2), which had its Classic game against Ohio State canceled because of COVID issues in the Buckeyes’ program. The 5:30 p.m. game will air on CBS. The Wildcats lost at Notre Dame 66–62 Saturday in their last game. UNC is 25–16 all-time against Kentucky and has won two of the last three meetings.
Black has been Carolina’s Swiss army knife this season as the lockdown defender, a distributor and a rebounder. He even knocked down a couple of long jumpers in Carolina’s 74–61 victory Saturday over Furman.
Davis admits he hasn’t seen every player in the country, but says that he hasn’t seen anybody play as well this season on the defensive end as Black.
“He’s bought into his role and, offensively, he is a threat,” Davis said. “When he’s open and there’s an opportunity for him to make a play, run the floor in transition, get an offensive rebound or make an open jump shot, he does that. When he’s open and it’s a good shot, but he has an opportunity to pass to somebody else that provides us a great shot, he does that. I think any coach in the country, will love to have a player who plays with that type of passion and that type of mindset.”
With career totals of 398 rebounds, 199 assists, 96 steals and 44 blocks, he has a chance to join James Worthy, George Lynch, David Noel and Danny Green as the only Tar Heels with totals in those categories of at least 400, 200, 100 and 50. This season, Black is averaging five points and five rebounds and, with 19 assists against eight turnovers, is the only Tar Heel with a 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio.
Black, who has five blocks and six steals on the season, has defended the opponents’ best player in each game. His challenge if UNC faces UCLA on Saturday will be hot-shooting guard Johnny Juzang.
“I’m so proud of Leaky,” Davis said. “He’s really taking pride on being a really good defensive player.”
There may be differences between Davis and Roy Williams. But when he was asked about criticism of Black on Twitter, Davis, like Williams, made it clear that he wants nothing to do with the social-media platform. And he didn’t care for whatever he was told was being said there about Black.
“First of all, I’m not on Twitter,” Davis said. “I’ve never been on Twitter. And I never will be on Twitter and have no desire to ever be a part of Twitter. I can’t imagine anything said on Twitter being anything negative toward Leaky.”
When Walton was the only reliable perimeter shooter last season, Black’s lack of scoring ability overshadowed his defensive prowess for some observers. This season, with Caleb Love, RJ Davis, Dawson Garcia and Brady Manek all 3-point threats, Black can concentrate on sharing the ball and other areas that he does well.
This season has been a strange one for Walton, who has missed his only shot and played a total of 25 minutes in the last three games. Since his last 3-pointer seven games ago on Nov. 20 against Purdue, he’s 0 of 8 from outside the arc. He’s started once after he started 20 times last season and averaged 21 minutes and 8.2 points per game.
Hubert Davis says that Walton can do more than just shoot.
“He’s a basketball player,” Davis said. “I really feel like he’s improved a lot defensively. He can handle the ball, and we put them in situations where he comes off ball screens and I’ve always believed that I want our guys to be basketball players. I don’t want them to be shooters, one-dimensional players.”
Many fans have wondered not only what has triggered Walton’s regression through 10 games but why McKoy, a Virginia transfer who likely would have started for the Cavaliers, hasn’t played more.
McKoy hasn’t played double-digit minutes since the opener. After playing 27 seconds at Georgia Tech, he got in for only five minutes against Elon and one minute against Furman. Last season for Virginia, he averaged 11.3 minutes and played double-digit minutes in 10 of 19 games.
Davis didn’t really address why McKoy or Walton isn’t playing. If it’s defense for McKoy, that would be surprising for a player who played for Coach Tony Bennett for two seasons. He’s obviously a good shooter. Before a practice open to the media in October, he made more than 100 3-pointers during a shooting session.
“Their role is to be the best player possible, show up every day and do their job and not only show up every day and do their job but do their job to the best of their ability,” Davis said of Walton and McKoy. “And that’s what Kerwin and Justin have been doing from day one. I can’t tell you how happy I am with both of them. And they’re gonna have unbelievable seasons and I’ve been very happy with them thus far and I’m looking forward to all their contributions for the rest of the season.”
There obviously hasn’t been much correlation between that happiness and their playing time.
Davis has also praised Dunn and Styles, but Dunn has only played in 12 minutes over five games and Styles 12 minutes over six games.
In several games this season, Carolina has rebounded from a poor first half with a solid second half. That happened in the wins over Georgia Tech, Elon and Furman.
“I’m encouraged that we can make changes,” Davis said. “We can pivot in order for us to be better out there on the floor. And, so, I’m very encouraged about that. … It’s consistently doing the right things in practice to try to be the best that you can be and that’s what we do. And I really liked how we’ve adjusted and pivoted and changed in games. And it’s been a huge benefit for us.”
The ability to adjust may be important this weekend since UNC is changing Saturday opponents.
UNC season statistics
day, time, TV
|5||83–55 exhibition win||Home||Elizabeth City State|
|9||83–67 win, 1–0||Home||Loyola Maryland|
|12||94–87 win, 2–0||Home||Brown|
|16||94–83 win, 3–0||Road||College of Charleston|
|20||93–84 loss, 3–1||Uncasville, Conn.||Y — No. 3 Purdue|
|21||89–72 loss, 3–2||Uncasville, Conn.||Y — No. 18 Tennessee|
|23||72–53 win, 4–2||Home||UNC Asheville|
|December (4–0, 1-0 ACC)|
|1||72–51 win, 5–2||Home||X — Michigan|
|5||79–62 win, 6–2, 1-0 ACC||Road||Georgia Tech|
|11||80–63 win, 7–2||Home||Elon|
|14||74–61 win, 8–2||Home||Furman|
|18||Saturday, 5:30, CBS||Las Vegas||Z — No. 21 Kentucky|
|21||Tuesday, 7, ACCN||Home||Appalachian State|
|29||Wednesday, 7, ESPN2||Home||Virginia Tech|
|1||Saturday, noon, ACCN||Road||Boston College|
|5||Wednesday, 9, ESPN2||Road||Notre Dame|
|8||Saturday, 1, ESPN||Home||Virginia|
|15||Saturday, 8, ACCN||Home||Georgia Tech|
|18||Tuesday, TBA, ESPN||Road||Miami|
|22||Saturday, 8, ACCN||Road||Wake Forest|
|26||Wednesday, RSN||Home||Boston College|
|29||Saturday, 2, ACCN||Home||N.C. State|
|31||Monday, 7, ESPN||Road||Louisville|
|5||Saturday, 6, ESPN||Home||No. 2 Duke|
|8||Tuesday, 9, ESPN or ESPN2||Road||Clemson|
|12||Saturday, 2, ESPN or ESPN2||Home||Florida State|
|16||Wednesday, 8, ACCN||Home||Pittsburgh|
|19||Saturday, 4, ESPN or ESPN2||Road||Virginia Tech|
|21||Monday, 7, ESPN||Home||Louisville|
|26||Saturday, 2 or 4, ESPN or ESPN2||Road||N.C. State|
|28||Monday, 7, ESPN||Home||Syracuse|
|5||Saturday, 6, ESPN||Road||No. 2 Duke|
Y — Basketball Hall of Fame Tip-Off; Z — CBS Sports Classic
Photo via @UNC_Basketball