By R.L. Bynum
CHARLOTTE — Continuity in the Carolina backcourt has been rare since Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington started three consecutive seasons, culminating with the 2009 national championship.
There have been productive combinations, such as the duo of Marcus Paige and Joel Berry II that led Carolina to the 2016 Final Four or the pairing of Berry and Theo Pinson during the Tar Heels’ 2017 national championship season. But there is usually personnel turnover from year to year.
After changing point guards for three consecutive seasons — from 6–0 Berry to 6–5 Coby White to 6–3 Cole Anthony to the combination of 6–0 RJ Davis and 6–4 Caleb Love — Carolina has enjoyed the rare luxury in the one-and-done era of having a talented backcourt combination for three consecutive seasons.
Like Lawson and Ellington, the potential is undoubtedly there for UNC to win a national championship in the third season with Davis and Love at the starting guard spots after they led the Tar Heels to the NCAA championship game last season.
Love said that it’s been great to play with Davis.
“Me and RJ have a great connection on the court,” Love said Wednesday at ACC Tipoff at The Westin Charlotte. “Just us being together last two years has been great just to see him grow into the player he is now. I can’t be more proud of him because I know exactly where we were as freshmen.”
After the way that last season went, it seems like a long time ago when Davis and Love went through their struggles as freshmen.
“We weren’t that good,” Love said. “But just to see how much we’ve grown in the two years that we’ve been here, it’s great to see.”
Davis was dynamic down the stretch, driving and creating shots for others while also being a dangerous shooter from 3-point range. Love’s clutch 3-point shooting was legendary last season.
Not only did both improve markedly individually as sophomores, but their chemistry got better. It showed down the stretch when Davis seized more of the ball-handling role and Love was more off the ball.
So many college teams have to start from scratch most seasons and find chemistry between guards. But that’s already strong for Love and Davis.
“I think what makes us so dynamic is knowing each other’s spots,” Davis said. “Knowing where we want the ball and knowing what we’re most comfortable at. We’re good at getting downhill. He knows I can shoot the ball from three. So he might switch up a play for me. And I think that is what his past couple of years, we’ve learned each other’s games.
Love went from averaging 10.5 points per game and shooting 26.6% from 3-point range as a freshman to 15.9 and 36.0% last season.
Davis’ jump was even more significant, going from averaging 8.4 points and shooting 35% from the floor while starting 10 games as a freshman to 13.5 points and shooting 41.9% while starting all 39 games last season. In addition, he went from 56 assists and 54 turnovers in 647 minutes in his first season to 142 and 74 in 1,326 minutes as a sophomore.
“I think that we developed from freshman to sophomore year and have definitely grown stronger since we are juniors now,” Davis said of the chemistry between the two junior guards.
Their ability to anticipate the other’s next move and their tendencies made Carolina productive on both ends last season as they took advantage of that rare continuity in college basketball these days. It was a product of both putting in the time to get better.
“Me and RJ worked out in the morning every morning last year,” Love said. “Before school, we’d work out together, sometimes together, or sometimes I’ll work out, and he’ll work out right after. We know how much work we put in. So it’s not a surprise to see him where he is now.”
Davis said that the two have worked on pacing, efficiency and shooting better.
“I feel like this past summer, we really focused on making timely shots and being consistent with our shots and having confidence in each other,” Davis said. “I think that we developed from freshman to sophomore year and have definitely grown stronger since we are juniors now.
“We know we’re veterans of this team, the point guards of this team,” Davis said. “So, we are leadership, and I feel like the way we complement each other, we just bond well together on and off the court. That kind of seasoning played a role.”
Adding the element of young talent in 6–3 freshman point guard Seth Trimble, which may allow Love and Davis to play fewer minutes, will undoubtedly elevate UNC’s backcourt even more.
The results should be fun for Tar Heels fans to watch.
|28||Friday||W, 101–40||Johnson C. Smith||Home||Exhibition|
|11||Friday||W, 102–86||College of Charleston||Home||2–0|
|20||Sunday||W, 80–64||James Madison||Home||4–0|
|Phil Knight Invitational|
|24||Thursday||W, 89–81||First round: Portland||Portland||5–0|
|27||Sunday||L, 103–101, |
No. 18 Alabama
|ACC/Big Ten Challenge|
|30||Wednesday||9:15||No. 11 Indiana||Bloomington, Ind.||ESPN|
|4||Sunday||3 p.m.||Virginia Tech||Blacksburg, Va.||ACCN|
|13||Tuesday||7 p.m.||The Citadel||Home||ESPN2|
|CBS Sports Classic|
|17||Saturday||3 p.m.||Ohio State||New York||CBS|
|4||Wednesday||9 p.m.||Wake Forest||Home||ACCN|
|7||Saturday||11:30 a.m.||Notre Dame||Home||ESPN2|
|10||Tuesday||9 p.m.||No. 5 Virginia||Charlottesville||ESPN or ESPN2|
|14||Saturday||2 p.m.||Louisville||Louisville, Ky.||ESPN|
|17||Tuesday||7 p.m.||Boston College||Home||RSN|
|21||Saturday||5 p.m.||N.C. State||Home||ACCN|
|24||Tuesday||9 p.m.||Syracuse||Syracuse, N.Y.||ESPN|
|4||Saturday||6:30||No. 8 Duke||Durham||ESPN|
|7||Tuesday||7 p.m.||Wake Forest||Winston-Salem||ESPN or ESPN2|
|11||Saturday||2 p.m.||Clemson||Home||ESPN or ESPN2|
|19||Sunday||1 p.m.||N.C. State||Raleigh||ESPN|
|22||Wednesday||9 p.m.||Notre Dame||South Bend, Ind.||ESPN or ESPN2|
|25||Saturday||6 or 8||No. 5 Virginia||Home||ESPN|
|27||Monday||7 p.m.||Florida State||Tallahassee, Fla.||ESPN|
|4||Saturday||6 or 6:30||No. 8 Duke||Home||ESPN|
Photos via @UNC_Basketball (top photo)/ACC