By R.L. Bynum
Considering how often first-year head coach Hubert Davis has mentioned the importance of his team’s “energy, effort and toughness” to the media, it’s likely that UNC’s players have heard those words more often than they hear the fight song during games.
It has everything to do with Davis wanting his team to show the kind of fight it had during Saturday’s impressive 74–58 home victory over Virginia.
His players clearly lacked that same resolve in several games this season, so those Tar Heels will hear those words on a loop until they bring all three consistently.
“I think that’s the biggest part for our team success is, ‘Can we stop talking about energy effort and toughness?’ Let’s make it so consistent, that’s something that we don’t have to talk about,” Davis said. “I think that’s going to be the No. 1 key for us determining how successful we are as a team this year, is that we transition into a team that just naturally plays with that type of effort, that we don’t have to talk about it anymore.”
The next chance for UNC (11–4, 3–1 ACC) to make the play stop the need for that talk is Saturday at 8 p.m. when last-placed Georgia Tech (6–8, 0–4) visits the Smith Center (ACC Network).
Retired Hall of Fame coach Roy Williams many times bemoaned having to coach effort and that’s been a continued Davis lament. Davis has a passion for Carolina basketball and doesn’t understand why his players can’t have that and show it with their play in every game.
“I just didn’t think we would be talking about that, and so it’s surprising,” Davis said. “It’s frustrating, and it’s tiring to deal with that and talk about that.”
Davis said that he never had to coach energy, effort and toughness during his seven seasons as UNC’s junior varsity team.
“They were so thankful to be a part of Carolina basketball, even as a JV player, to play on that floor, to practice every day, to run through that tunnel,” Davis said. “I never had to preach that.”
But those decent high school players who earn spots on the JV team never had basketball come quite as easily as it has for McDonald’s All-Americans. The latter might come to Chapel Hill without understanding the amount of effort it will take to make UNC a national contender.
That was never a problem for Sean May, who kept getting better during his Carolina career and eventually was the Most Outstanding Player when the Tar Heels won the 2015 national championship. May, now an assistant coach, tries to elicit the same passion by imploring the players on game day to “pack your game” and to “bring your game.”
“You shouldn’t have to bring it,” Davis said. “It should be already with you.”
While the constant pleading from Davis probably will help, connecting that sort of effort with the type of game UNC played Saturday likely will make more of a difference. Even the players’ frustrations when poor efforts led to horrible games against Tennessee and Kentucky haven’t kept the effort at the level that Davis demands.
With a roster that includes few players who are sure to have long NBA careers, the margin of error gets small when the Tar Heels don’t play with passion.
“They’ve experienced the benefit of that,” Davis said, adding that his team has “also experienced the feeling of not bringing that consistent energy and effort and toughness and what that looks like.”
Even when Carolina brings all of those intangibles, it may not translate to wins without an offense that includes a lot more ball movement, crisp passing and screening than dribbling. All that came together to help the Tar Heels pick apart Virginia’s pack line defense.
Davis says that with five players capable of scoring 20 points in any given game, sharing the basketball will only make the Tar Heels better.
“That’s the way that I’ve always learned and loved to play, and it’s important for our program and for this team to share the basketball,” said Davis, adding that more one-on-one basketball leads to fewer assists and less efficiency. “The couple days prior to Virginia, we moved the ball really well in practice. My hope is that the success that we all had moving the basketball is something that would resonate with our guys and that we can consistently do it the remainder of the year.”
If the players aren’t moving the ball and it gets stuck too much in the hands of one or two players, Davis says their teammates are letting them know. On-the-court leadership from Armando Bacot, RJ Davis and Caleb Love that has been lacking much of the season is developing now.
“When we struggle with the ball movement lately, guys have been — in an encouraging way, but in the direct and definitive way— talking about the importance of doing that, whether it be Armando or RJ Davis or Caleb Love,” Coach Davis said. “The dialogue in timeouts and out there on the floor in terms of the importance of sharing the basketball, I think has been really encouraging and really good over the last couple of weeks.”
And when the need for the coach to make “energy, effort and toughness” references goes down, the win totals will no doubt keep going up.
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. 7 Purdue|
|21||89–72 loss, 3–2||Uncasville, Conn.||Y — No. 22 Tennessee|
|23||72–53 win, 4–2||Home||UNC Asheville|
|December (5–1, 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||98–69 loss, 8–3||Las Vegas||Z — No. 18 Kentucky|
|21||70–50 win, 9–3||Home||Appalachian State|
|January (2–1, 2–1 ACC)|
|2||91–65 win, 10–3, 2-0 ACC||Road||Boston College|
|5||78–73 loss, 10–4, 2-1 ACC||Road||Notre Dame|
|8||74–58 win, 11–4, 3–1 ACC||Home||Virginia|
|15||Saturday, 8, ACCN||Home||Georgia Tech|
|18||Tuesday, TBA, ESPN||Road||Miami|
|22||Saturday, 8, ACCN||Road||Wake Forest|
|24||Monday, 8, ACCN||Home||Virginia Tech|
|26||Wednesday, RSN||Home||Boston College|
|29||Saturday, 2, ACCN||Home||N.C. State|
|1||Tuesday, 8, ACC Network||Road||Louisville|
|5||Saturday, 6, ESPN||Home||No. 8 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. 8 Duke|
Y — Basketball Hall of Fame Tip-Off; Z — CBS Sports Classic
Photo via @UNC_Basketball