With the national championship set for tonight, it may still come as a surprise that one of its entrants is even still playing. 1 seed Kansas was expected by plenty of people to be here, but what about 8 seed North Carolina? The Heels were just about left for dead after they bombed off the stage in late January against a pair of conference opponents. Since January 22nd, head coach Hubert Davis and company have gone 17-3, including a pair of wins over Duke in Coach K’s Cameron Indoor finale and in the Final Four last Saturday.
If you brush through all the still-hot Duke schadenfreude, one man in Carolina Blue stands above all the noise. For all the hubbub made about UNC’s talented core – from Armando Bacot to Caleb Love – it’s still head coach Hubert Davis whose story is the most compelling. Last summer, as the Heels scrambled to replace the legendary Roy Williams, rumblings were abound about what exactly North Carolina was doing. In some circles, Davis’ hire was criticized: one longtime Sports Illustrated and ESPN writer dismissed North Carolina for simply grabbing “the first guy in a powder blue polo shirt” they could find to fill Williams’ enormous shoes. These days, it appears the Heels grabbed wisely.
In the regular season, Davis righted the ship time and again after UNC got blown out against obvious tournament contenders. Once the Heels got to March Madness, Davis faced off against venerable opposing coaches in Scott Drew, Mick Cronin, and Mike Krzyzewski. He felled them all. Whether or not the Tar Heels can cap their run with a championship – or if Davis can repeat such a feat – has yet to be seen. However, it does show that success with a first-year coach and an already talented team is certainly possible.
With that in mind, it’s comfortingly clear that Syracuse isn’t going to nosedive as soon as Jim Boeheim walks out the door. Boeheim’s age dictates that retirement rumors constantly swirl around him no matter how hard he tries to shake them off. He’s turned down the idea of mimicking Coach K’s oft-criticized retirement tour strategy, instead insisting the team has a “plan” in place for his succession. Whoever that successor is will likely inherit a team with some talented pieces.
Even if we assume that Boeheim leaves in the next year or two, there are caveats in place that would preclude SU from making a magical UNC-style run, potentially under one of its assistants. ‘Cuse still has to develop its Class of ‘22 players correctly and walk the playing-time tightrope to prevent transfers away from the program. Even if Justin Taylor or Judah Mintz are exceptionally good, we can’t assume they’ll become Brady Manek or Caleb Love.
As Syracuse has shown over the past decade or so, it’s hard to make deep runs in the tournament, even with good teams and players. It’s likely even harder to keep a blue-blood tradition going after a longtime regime leaves. But as you watch the National Championship tonight, take heart. If Hubert Davis and UNC can pull this off, there’s no reason to believe SU couldn’t strive towards something similar if it plays its cards right.