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Take of the week: UNC's Hubert Davis has set the bar high for Jon Scheyer

Saturday's Final Four matchup starts the next chapter of the rivalry, one with new faces at the helm in Duke head coach-in-waiting Jon Scheyer and North Carolina head coach Hubert Davis.
Saturday's Final Four matchup starts the next chapter of the rivalry, one with new faces at the helm in Duke head coach-in-waiting Jon Scheyer and North Carolina head coach Hubert Davis.

The buzzer sounds, and 3,263 North Carolina fans raucously celebrate in the Dean Smith Center. After a 2020-21 season overshadowed by limited fan attendance, COVID-19 protocols and masked student sections, North Carolina men's basketball emerged victorious 91-73 in its final game of the regular season against its fiercest rival. But the excitement came with a catch: legendary head coach Roy Williams got down on his knees and tearfully kissed the ground, a gesture the world would eventually learn was in honor of his final time on the court that bears his own name.

It’s not every season that one of the greats decides to move on from coaching, but in the Tobacco Road rivalry, two of basketball’s longest-standing icons are retiring in back-to-back years. Williams went out quietly at the end of last season, but his protege, Hubert Davis, has started his career off with a bang, securing a Final Four appearance and a pending shot at a national championship. Davis’ success demonstrates the strength of the North Carolina men's basketball program regardless of its coach, and serves as precedent for incoming Duke head coach Jon Scheyer to continue the illustrious Blue Devil winning tradition.

In April 2021, the sports world didn’t know what to expect from the new-look Tar Heel squad. When Davis took over the team, the Tar Heels had only recruited two additional players for the following season, while hemorrhaging star power by the day. Walker Kessler transferred to Auburn. Garrison Brooks transferred to Mississippi State. Day’Ron Sharpe declared for the NBA draft and Armando Bacot heavily considered doing so. The core of the roster seemed to be falling apart with little time left to recruit.

But Davis made do with what he had. In the absence of the usual talented freshmen, he grabbed forward and floor spacer Brady Manek as a transfer from Oklahoma to don the Carolina Blue. Manek subsequently brought 15.2 points per game with him, including 39.8% shooting from beyond the arc. Bacot stayed in school and developed into the greatest statistical rebounder in ACC history, besting a single-season total rebounds record set by Tim Duncan. Caleb Love and RJ Davis took a huge leap from a freshman backcourt averaging 18.9 combined points per game to a formidable guard tandem averaging 29.1 points per game. Not to mention Leaky Black, who finished third in ACC Defensive Player of the Year voting.

With a short timeline, Davis retooled and reinvigorated a roster that finished fifth in the conference with 18 wins to a team that finished second place in the ACC with 28 wins, a 13-point stunning upset in Krzyzewski’s ceremonious final home game, and, eventually, a trip to New Orleans by way of beating the defending national champion and defending East Region champion.

This season, Davis performed excellently for a first-year head coach despite some hiccups early on, to the point of competing in the national semifinal against the team down Tobacco Road. On the other team’s bench sits not only Krzyzewski, but also his successor and former player Scheyer, who inherits the most popular brand in college basketball and a stacked roster for his inaugural season.

With Jeremy Roach likely returning as the starting point guard, three of the top four high school recruits in the nation according to the Top247, and a program returning from the national semifinal and maybe more, the 34-year-old is primed for a top-tier season that lives up to the Duke standard.

As Duke faces North Carolina for the first time in tournament history, a new era of college basketball begins. Saturday night’s game is about more than just the Final Four with a chance to the national championship game on the line. It’s about the greatest rivalry in sports between two programs more equally matched than any other pair in history. The greatest college basketball coach to ever live leads his players in the most anticipated game of his 42-year career, and his replacement will be right by his side. On the other side stands a brand new face representing an all-too-familiar foe.

A prolific chapter comes to a close Saturday, but we still have much more to be written between these two programs. Hubert Davis has proved that he is up to the quality of North Carolina’s championship pedigree and can push this rivalry to the ultimate spectacle it’s capable of being. As Scheyer finally receives the baton, he must do the same for Duke.

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