UNC assistant Hubert Davis on getting over Villanova loss, state of the Carolina family and more

by Andrew Carter

RALEIGH – And to think that Dean Smith and Bill Guthridge once told Hubert Davis not to come to North Carolina, for fear that he’d be unhappy spending most of his time on the bench.

Davis told them, though, that “we won’t know if I’m good enough unless you give me the opportunity.”

Two days later, a phone call. It was Smith, offering Davis a scholarship. Davis, now an assistant coach on Roy Williams’ staff at UNC, recounted the story on Wednesday when he spoke at the Raleigh Sports Club.

He told the audience the story of his arrival at UNC, where he played from 1988 to 1992 and where he developed, after Smith’s early skepticism, into one of the best shooters in school history. Because Smith gave him that opportunity, Davis said on Wednesday, “everything significant happened in my life.”

Davis, who spent 12 seasons in the NBA, spoke for nearly an hour on Wednesday. He detailed his recovery from the loss against Villanova in the national championship game in April, his time at ESPN as a college basketball analyst, the state of the Carolina basketball family, and more.

Some of the highlights:

‘Destroyed’ after national championship loss

It was the day after. A Tuesday.

The night before the Tar Heels had walked off the court at NRG Stadium in Houston, where they had been on the other side of one of the great national championship games in history. Kris Jenkins’ 3-pointer at the buzzer gave Villanova a 77-74 victory.

The shot went up, the horn sounded, the shot went in, the confetti fell. All over in an instant – UNC’s season and dream of winning a national championship that could have cured a lot of ills. The next day outside the team hotel Davis and others were about to board the bus. Davis saw his father.

“You look destroyed,” Davis said his dad told him.

Davis said he began to cry. His dad thought he’d said something wrong. It wasn’t that, exactly. Later Davis said he called his dad to explain. That the loss in the national championship game was more than an average loss was obvious enough. Yet Davis’ agony went deeper beyond the grief of coming close and losing.

It was the way UNC lost, for one. And then it was that the defeat came in his final game with the senior class of Marcus Paige, Brice Johnson and Joel James. Their first season at UNC was Davis’ first season at UNC as an assistant. And then it was this, too:

“At times, it has been difficult at North Carolina,” Davis said on Wednesday. “It’s been a hard four years. All the stuff that has gone on with the university has made it very tough for, at times, recruiting. For a place that I love, for a place that I believe in.

“That championship game meant more to me than just winning. It meant to me if we could just win this game then all the stuff that has gone on the last four years was worth it.”

Better shooting ahead?

Davis told a story about learning how to shoot. In high school, he said, he made four 3-pointers. Total. In college, at UNC, he became one of the best shooters in school history. And by the time his NBA career was over, he was one of the best 3-point shooters in league history.

Davis is third in NBA history in 3-point field goal percentage. He made 44.1 percent of his attempts. That’s behind only Steve Kerr (45.4 percent) and Steph Curry (44.4 percent). Now Davis is trying to help the Tar Heels become a better shooting team.

It has been a weakness in recent years. Last season, UNC made 32.7 percent of its 3-point attempts, which ranked 259th nationally. Paige, one of the team’s best shooters the past several years, is gone. But Joel Berry, Theo Pinson and Justin Jackson are all back.

The secret to becoming a great shooter, Davis said, is that there is no secret.

“Be in the gym, relentlessly working on your craft just to have a chance to put yourself in position for where you want to be,” he said. “And I really believe Theo has done that this summer. He’s going to get a great opportunity to play a ton of minutes. Justin Jackson’s shot has improved.”

Davis praised the improvement of Nate Britt, too, and said that Brandon Robinson, the incoming freshman guard, “is a fantastic shooter.”

“I think we’re going to be a much improved overall 3-point shooting team,” Davis said.

He recited some of the team’s shooting statistics last season. The numbers were bleak.

“And we were one shot away from winning the national championship,” Davis said.

Freshmen ‘fit in perfectly’

Davis talked about recruiting, about how much it has changed:

“Recruiting is different now. When I went to school, we never thought about going to the NBA, or leaving early. Never. It never even came across our minds. We were there for four years, we were going to graduate, if we were good enough, we’d go to the NBA. Kids now, they’re in a hurry to get there. And a lot of the times, they don’t unpack their packs. They don’t have both feet in. And the thing that I love about these freshmen is, yes – I think they have dreams, aspirations of playing at the NBA level.”

But, Davis said, UNC’s freshman class – which includes guards Robinson and Seventh Woods, and the 6-foot-10 Tony Bradley – wants most of all to be at UNC.

“They’ve unpacked their bags,” Davis said. “They’ve got two feet in, they’re here trying to make this program the best that it can be.”

Less family, more corporate?

A member of the audience asked Davis about the notion of the “Carolina family,” particularly the Carolina basketball family. The idea was foreign to her, and so she asked Davis to describe it. She asked, too, about whether it’s more difficult now to maintain that kind of family atmosphere.

“A great question,” Davis said.

He provided an interesting answer:

“One of the things that coach Smith and coach Guthridge did for us is, it was all about relationships. They invested their life in us. And I really felt, not just for the basketball program, but for the university. A lot of people associate Carolina fandom with the basketball program, but when I was at school I felt that everywhere. I felt that way when I walked around to classes.

“I felt like everybody – everybody has differences of opinion, but I feel like everybody’s goal and love and appreciation was for the University of North Carolina. And I felt like every person that I came in touch with was trying to do the best that they could do to help me be the best that I could be so that I could be successful …

“And I feel like, I’m being honest with you – I feel like that’s changed a little bit at North Carolina. I feel like it’s changed from a family and in some ways it’s more corporate. It’s more one thinking about developing your brand. I don’t really understand what developing your brand is. My definition, my understanding of it is manufacturing an opinion from somebody else.

“And your identity is who you really are. And I feel like North Carolina has got to do a better job as a whole, as a university, of being who they are, and developing relationships.”


One final note: Davis seemed to embrace the opportunity to speak in front of a crowd of a couple hundred. He took more than 30 minutes worth of questions – a lot, relative to the time other prominent coaches have spent answering questions at Raleigh Sports Club meetings.

Davis also raved about his opportunity to coach the UNC JV team. It has provided him, on a small scale, a chance to see what it’s like to be a head coach. Speaking engagements like the one on Wednesday do the same thing. Which makes you wonder if it was part of a larger plan at work.

Perhaps it wasn’t. Just a thought.


Jack Benoit