Everything was set up for a Hollywood ending.
After an inconsistent regular season, North Carolina basketball entered the 2022 NCAA men’s basketball tournament as a No. 8 seeds.
The Tar Heels started their journey with a rout of Marquette before dethroning reigning champion Baylor. They took down a fellow blue blood in UCLA and ended the Cinderella run of Saint Peter’s.
In the Final Four, UNC rivaled the hopes of bitter Duke in what was the final game of a legendary coach’s career.
And, with a 15-point halftime lead against Kansas in the national championship, it appeared the Heels were well on their way to hanging a seventh national title banner in the Smith Center.
The final chapter didn’t play out that way, as RJ Davis and the rest of the Tar Heels watched the Jayhawks celebrate a 72-69 win in New Orleans.
Expectations are greater this year. The Tar Heels were the overwhelming coaches as the No. 1 team in the preseason USA TODAY Sports men’s basketball poll. That doesn’t change the approac
Davis has rewatched that loss throughout the offseason, gaining motivation to help Carolina write a different ending in 2023.
Just how many times has he relived the Kansas loss?
“I couldn’t even tell you how many times, that’s how much,” Davis said.
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Historically, UNC has shown an ability to bounce back after losing in the Final Four. The Heels lost in the 1981 championship game, and won it all in 1982. They lost in the 2008 national semifinals before cutting down the nets in 2009.
And in 2016, Carolina followed a buzzer-beating loss in the championship with a “redemption” run to a title in 2017.
Davis is well aware of the previous history. With six of seven players who logged time against Kansas – including four starters – back, Davis and company have a chance to add their chapter to the program’s championship history.
“Our main thing is: it’s only us. We know the expectations for us this year are very high. At the same time, we know what we have to do and what we have to focus on,” he said.
“It’s like a redemption year, as well, just to try and get back to the national championship and get a different outcome this year. It’s the same mindset, but this time it’s just writing our own story.”
That mindset, Davis added, is “championship or bust.”
Second-year coach Hubert Davis has a different view as it relates to expectations.
“The only difference between last year and this year is the outside noise. Last year the outside noise didn’t think we had a chance. The outside noise this year thinks we do have a chance,” Hubert Davis said.
“The things that I have talked to the players and 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. Even though they come from different directions, they’re still noise.
“To focus on what is real and our preparation, our practice … we’ll be happy with the results at the end of the season.”
UNC has the talent and experience to cut down the nets at NRG Stadium in Houston on April 3.
The Tar Heels were 17-4 in their final 21 games last season.
Postseason hero Caleb Love returns, along with ACC player of the year favorite Armando Bacot and lockdown defender Leaky Black. Floor-stretching sharpshooter Brady Manek exhausted his eligibility, but that opened the door for Northwestern transfer Pete Nance to become the likely fifth starter this season.
Hubert Davis, who had a short bench and saw his starting lineup earn the “Iron Five” moniker last season, also expects to have better depth with his latest group from both development of holdovers and incoming players.
“I love the growth of Dontrez Styles and D’Marco Dunn, and then you bring in the freshmen in Tyler Nickel and Seth Trimble and Jalen Washington and Will Shaver. I love their determination, their growth, and their ability out there on the floor,” Davis said.
“Then you talk about Pete Nance, a transfer from Northwestern who’s had an unbelievable career in the Big Ten, but he’s never been to the NCAA Tournament. So there’s a hunger and thirst coming from all different types of directions that’s going to allow us to have depth.”
With the leading and supporting characters in place ahead of the season opener Nov. 7 against UNC-Wilmington in the Smith Center, Love is ready to get started on Carolina’s latest chapter.
“We kind of want to write our own story. This is a new team. This is a new age,” Love said. “For us to go out this year and do what we’ve got to do, knowing what happened last year, we’re more motivated than ever.”