When Carolina Coach Hubert Davis Talked Final Four Last Fall, Not Everyone Believed

NEW ORLEANS - North Carolina coach Hubert Davis put up a picture of the Louisiana Superdome in his team's locker room last October.

The dome and New Orleans have special significance in Tar Heels history, and their immediate future. North Carolina is 15-1 all-time in the Big Easy with a 9-1 mark in the Superdome, including 6-1 in Final Fours.

No. 8 seed North Carolina (29-9) will play for its third national championship in the dome against No. 1 seed Kansas (33-6) on Monday (9:20 p.m. eastern, TBS). Kansas is a four-point favorite by FanDuel.

The Tar Heels defeated Georgetown, 63-62, for coach Dean Smith's first title in 1982 in the Superdome, and beat Michigan, 77-71, for his second in 1993, also in the dome.

UNC beat No. 2 seed Duke, 81-77, on Saturday night in the dome to reach this title game.

"The first day of practice I had put a picture of the Superdome in their locker," said Davis, who played for Smith. "I didn't want them to dwell on that, but I wanted them to see where we're going and what we're fighting for and why we're practicing so hard."

Davis, 51, was just beginning his first season as a head coach at the time, having been promoted from assistant coach to replace retiring coach Roy Williams last April. The win over Duke made him the first coach in NCAA Tournament history to take a team to the national championship game in his first full season. Steve Fisher won the 1989 national championship with Michigan, but he took over as the NCAA Tournament opened.

"It's crazy to think about," North Carolina guard R.J. Davis said. "Definitely a surreal moment. It just shows how much confidence and belief he had in us at the beginning of the year."

And the Tar Heels were not exactly in a great place. They had just gone 18-11 overall in the 2020-21 season with a fifth place finish in the Atlantic Coast Conference at 10-6. Then they lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament as a No. 8 seed to No. 9 seed Wisconsin, 85-62.

"Coach told us we were going to be in this position, so we might as well just tell our parents to book their tickets now to New Orleans," Davis said.

As the season went on, though, not all believed. North Carolina lost by 17 to No. 17 Tennessee, by 29 to No. 21 Kentucky, by 28 at Miami, by 20 at home to No. 9 Duke, by nine at home on Feb. 16 to Pittsburgh, which finished 11-21 and 6-14 in the ACC for 11th, and 72-59 in the ACC Tournament to Virginia Tech, which finished 11-9 in the ACC for seventh.

Would there be ticket refunds for New Orleans trips?

"At some points, I don't know if it was belief or if it was just us being delusional," North Carolina center Armando Bacot said. "I mean, at every point of the season we knew if we would just come together as a team that we can get to the championship. And that's what we did."

North Carolina played its finest game to beat Duke Saturday.

"It was just what I felt like that's what the team needed," Davis said of his Superdome picture motivational tactic, along with others, such as preaching to block out noise. "I feel they have understood where I'm coming from, and they've adopted it or accepted it. That's a reason why they're able to play so well under the big lights because they can block out the noise."

North Carolina is home in the dome, but Franklin Street on Chapel Hill would have been more fun on Saturday night. Carolina fans swarmed the street in celebration after the win over Duke in the first-ever NCAA Tournament pairing of the two programs located just eight miles apart.

"It's crazy to see that our play is, like, creating moments for them, too," said North Carolina guard Caleb Love, who scored 28 Saturday, including a three-pointer with 28.4 seconds left for a 78-74 lead that put the game out of reach. "So that's just a blessing in disguise. Great to see."

As comfortable as North Carolina has been in New Orleans, Davis was not OK with his players fully experiencing the French Quarter or Bourbon Street.

"Not that much," he said. "I wanted them to enjoy, but not that much."

Maybe, on Monday night.

ARMANDO BACOT INJURY UPDATE: X-Rays of North Carolina center Armando Bacot's right ankle injury suffered Saturday were negative on Sunday, Davis said.

"He's a little sore, but he was walking around and feeling good and was very encouraged with the (little) amount of swelling from his ankle sprain," Davis said. "And he's ready to play tomorrow night."

Bacot, a 6-foot-10 junior center, averages 16 points and 13 rebounds with 64 blocked shots. He grabbed 21 rebounds in the win Saturday. He will oppose Kansas 6-10 senior center David McCormack, who had 25 points and nine rebounds in the Jayhawks' 81-65 win over Villanova. He averages 10.5 points and 6.9 rebounds with 32 blocks.

"It's going to be a great matchup in the post," Davis said. "Two unbelievable post players who can rebound, can score consistently down low in the paint. It's a big emphasis for us as well as Kansas. And it could ultimately come down to the winner of that matchup being the determining factor of who wins the championship. But Armando looks really good, and he's very encouraged and ready to play."

Written by
Guilbeau joined OutKick as an SEC columnist in September of 2021 after covering LSU and the Saints for 17 years at USA TODAY Louisiana. He has been a national columnist/feature writer since the summer of 2022, covering college football, basketball and baseball with some NFL, NBA, MLB, TV and Movies and general assignment, including hot dog taste tests. A New Orleans native and Mizzou graduate, he has consistently won Associated Press Sports Editors (APSE) and Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) awards since covering Alabama and Auburn at the Mobile Press-Register (1993-98) and LSU and the Saints at the Baton Rouge Advocate (1998-2004). In 2021, Guilbeau won an FWAA 1st for a game feature, placed in APSE Beat Writing, Breaking News and Explanatory, and won Beat Writer of the Year from the Louisiana Sports Writers Association (LSWA). He won an FWAA columnist 1st in 2017 and was FWAA's top overall winner in 2016 with 1st in game story, 2nd in columns, and features honorable mention. Guilbeau completed a book in 2022 about LSU's five-time national champion coach - "Everything Matters In Baseball: The Skip Bertman Story" - that is available at www.acadianhouse.com, Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble outlets. He lives in Baton Rouge with his wife, the former Michelle Millhollon of Thibodaux who previously covered politics for the Baton Rouge Advocate and is a communications director.