The three words North Carolina coach Hubert Davis has used most often this season is actually a phrase he would rather not talk about.
Energy, effort and toughness.
It’s like the new Carolina Way, just, not in the way you’re thinking.
Davis has frequently mentioned it because the Tar Heels (11-4, 3-1 ACC) have lacked those things more times than he thinks is reasonable. And it’s happened in some pretty big moments, like when they trailed Kentucky by 35 before suffering the second-worst loss in series history, 98-69.
Carolina, coming off arguably its best performance in its 74-58 win over Virginia, has a week without a game before taking on Georgia Tech at home on Saturday. It is Davis’ hope that he can finally stop preaching these three words as a motivation.
“That’s the biggest part for our team success is, can we stop talking about energy, effort and toughness,” Davis said on Monday’s ACC coaches video conference. “Let’s make it so consistent, that it’s something that we don’t have to talk about.”
He believes it should be inherit. It’s not like it’s a stat that can be quantified, but it can be gauged by how they fight through picks, how focused they are in the details of the scouting report and how they react to whatever adversity that may arise during a game. Davis can tell pretty quickly if his team has it or not.
One of the first times Davis brought energy, effort and toughness up this season came after the Heels’ 89-72 loss to Tennessee in the Hall of Fame Tipoff at the Mohegan Sun. He’s used it after wins too, like UNC Asheville and revisited it just last week after their 78-73 loss at Notre Dame.
It’s not a phrase Davis sat down to develop as a personal wrinkle he wanted to use as a first-time varsity head coach. In the seven years he coached the Heels’ junior varsity team, he said he never had to talk about it.
“I didn’t have to coach energy, effort and toughness on the JV — at all,” Davis said. “They were so thankful to be a part of Carolina basketball, even as a JV player, to play on that floor, to practice every day, to run through that tunnel.”
Just to be clear, Davis is not saying his current team isn’t appreciative, they’re just inconsistent. Which is why he started the new year issuing a 30-day challenge to them to bring a high-level of effort every day during that span. He told them that if they do it for 30 days, it will be a habit.
Carolina started off strong with its win over Boston College, but may have had to re-start the count after falling flat at Notre Dame.
“To me that’s been probably the most surprising thing this year,” Davis said, “is that at times we’ve had to talk about energy, effort and toughness. I just didn’t think we would be talking about that and so that’s surprising. It’s frustrating and it’s tiring to to deal with that.”
Maybe, just maybe, Davis’ message is starting to get through. They’ve seen how good they can be in wins like Michigan and against the Cavaliers, when they play with a high level of it. They’ve seen just how bad it turns out, (see Wildcats, Kentucky) when they don’t.
Davis believes, ultimately, the season will rest on how well the Heels can adapt to playing with the level of toughness he thinks they should.
“That’s going to be the No. 1 key for us, determining how successful we are as a team this year,” Davis said. “Is that we transition into a team that just naturally plays with that type of effort, that we don’t have to talk about it anymore.”
This story was originally published January 10, 2022 2:43 PM.