NEW ORLEANS — North Carolina coach Hubert Davis was asked by reporters if his No. 8 seeded team was staging a “Cinderella” story in this NCAA Tournament.
The first-year head coach noticeably scoffed, believing his blue-blooded program — winners of six NCAA titles in its stored history — belongs in this Final Four just as much as favorites Kansas and UNC’s semifinal opponent, archrival Duke.
That belief started back in October for the first-year coach.
“The first day of practice I put a picture of the Superdome in their locker,” Davis said. “And I talked about it at midcourt at our first official practice. I said there’s going to be a lot of hard work. We’ll have to prepare and play really well. But this is our expectation of this team. And I just really wanted them to see where they were going.
“I told them to tell their parents: book their hotels and travel arrangements, that we would be in New Orleans in April. And the reason being is I really felt like this team had a chance to be able to do that. So I felt that way from the beginning.”
The Tar Heels (28-9) were a bubble team at the start of March after an up-and-down start that saw them lose to Tennessee by 17 points in November, by 29 to Kentucky in December and by 28 to Miami (Fla .) in January. “We were playing soft,” Davis said.
But UNC played its way into the field, starting with a March 5 road upset of Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium. That may have been the turning point, but Williams emphasized that his belief in his team never wavered.
Now, Davis’ expectations have come to fruition, as the Tar Heels look more like a No. 1 seed than a No. 8, showcasing an arsenal of offensive weapons. Armando Bacot tied Tim Duncan’s record for double-doubles, Brandy Manek has been breaking out from beyond the arc, while guards Caleb Love (30 points vs. UCLA) and RJ Davis (30 points vs. Baylor) have each had breakout games in this NCAA Tournament.
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“I always felt like we had a special team as soon as we started practice this summer,” Davis said. “I really did. Was my hope for them to be at this place at the Final Four having a chance to win a national championship? Yes. Did I feel like we had enough talent to do that? Yes.”
One year ago Friday, former UNC coach Roy Williams announced his retirement from the sport and paved way for Davis — his longtime assistant — to eventually take over. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski was complimentary of Davis, saying his attitude has been the perfect way to preserve tradition while at the same time rebranding.
“There’s a lot of pressure taking over a program the level of North Carolina’s, with the tradition of excellence that they’ve had,” Krzyzewski said. “And for him to do it, he’s under immense scrutiny. And they got knocked back a number of times. I just thought he always had poise and he has great humility. And he had a belief in his players and in what he was doing. He’s running his own race. He hasn’t tried to be Dean Smith or Roy (Williams) or anybody else. He’s been himself in that culture. I think it’s a great way for culture to grow.”
Follow college basketball reporter Scott Gleeson on Twitter @ScottMGleeson†