ACC (Midseason) Coach of the Year?
Davis, Scheyer, Brownell Leading The Way

By David Glenn
North Carolina Sports Network

If North Carolina coach Hubert Davis had received midseason report cards during his first two seasons leading the Tar Heels, he would not have fared well.

Two years ago, during Davis’ head coaching debut, Carolina seemed locked in mediocrity for almost three months. Just 12-6 in mid-January, and without a signature victory, the Tar Heels were in jeopardy of missing the NCAA Tournament. Only after Oklahoma transfer Brady Manek became acclimated to the starting lineup did the Heels improve enough to become an eight seed in the NCAA Tournament, then make their magical run to the national championship game.

Last season, Carolina once again had a 12-6 record in mid-January. The Tar Heels’ best wins at the time were over solid-looking Ohio State and Michigan squads just before Christmas, but those teams later stumbled to 16-19 and 18-16 records, respectively. The Heels ultimately fell apart, too, finishing 20-13 and — infamously, as the preseason #1 team — missing the NCAA Tournament entirely. They declined an invitation to the NIT.

This time, about two months into the four-month-long journey to the 2024 NCAA Tournament, Davis has led the Tar Heels to a 14-3 record, a #3 national ranking and an undefeated (6-0) mark in ACC play. UNC’s resume includes huge victories over elite opponents such as Oklahoma (now ranked #15 nationally) and Tennessee (#6), plus very impressive, back-to-back-to-back ACC road wins over postseason hopefuls Pitt, Clemson and NC State.

While there are no official “Midseason ACC Awards,” if there were, Davis would be perhaps the top candidate for the Coach of the Year honor.

Second-year Duke coach Jon Scheyer, who has led the Blue Devils to a 13-3 record and a #7 national ranking, would be on the short list, too.

The only other ACC coach who has his team firmly on the right side of the NCAA Tournament bubble here in mid-January is Brad Brownell, who may have one of the two best groups (in 2018, Clemson finished third in the conference and made the Sweet 16) he’s enjoyed during his 14 seasons with the Tigers.

The only conceivable pushback on the Coach of the Year candidacies of Davis, Scheyer and/or Brownell is that their teams were supposed to be good this season. Indeed, in the preseason, the ACC media picked Duke to finish first in the conference, UNC third and Clemson fifth, implying that all three would be NCAA Tournament-caliber teams.

While such logic understandably is one aspect of the Coach of the Year equation, when it’s been taken to an extreme level, it has led to some ridiculous results, especially in recent decades.

Prior to the turn of the century, even the future Hall of Fame coaches at perennial powers Duke and UNC often won the ACC Coach of the Year award, although they came less frequently after they had established their dynasties. Legendary Carolina coach Dean Smith holds the all-time record with eight such honors, and legendary Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski is next, with five.

Since 2000, about half the time the award has gone to a coach whose team finished first (including ties) in the conference standings, and about half the time it has gone to the coach perceived to have overachieved the most compared to preseason expectations. Occasionally, the same candidate does both of those things, which makes for a very easy vote.

The modern trend of heavily emphasizing the “overachievement” angle, often at the expense of coaches whose teams accomplished much greater things, once reached an absolutely absurd level.

In 2017, Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner received the league’s Coach of the Year honor … after finishing 11th in the 15-team ACC. Eleventh! At the time of the vote, the Yellow Jackets (who finished 21-16 after an NIT run) were 17-14 and 8-10 in conference play, effectively the living, breathing definition of abject mediocrity.

In most years, thankfully, the voters tend to reward the coach whose team did something special, not the coach who merely helped elevate his team from a predicted disaster into … yes, a pleasant surprise, but one with only a few more victories than defeats, and a season that fell miles short of the be-all, end-all, raison d’être of the sport, the NCAA Tournament.

With that in mind, as long as their teams continue to play at a high level, Brownell, Scheyer and Davis all should receive serious consideration for the actual ACC Coach of the Year honor, which is voted on at the conclusion of the regular season. Several other coaches still have plenty of time to enter that longer-term conversation, too.

For the midseason ACC Coach of the Year honor, however, there are only three viable candidates.

Clemson’s impressive 12-5 start, which included two of the ACC’s best nonconference victories (over TCU and at Alabama), came despite the long-term injuries and absences of two important, experienced rotation players: fifth-year guard Alex Hemenway and fifth-year forward Jack Clark.

Beyond Duke’s impressive record and ranking, the case for Scheyer should include the fact that the Blue Devils — at a time when, because of the extra COVID year and other factors, college basketball has rarely been older or more experienced overall — are among the few teams still trying to win the old-fashioned way: by signing and developing high school players while limiting their number of incoming transfers. Five of the Devils’ top six players are freshmen or sophomores, which is extremely rare in today’s game, one that is overflowing with 23-, 24- and occasionally 25-year-old players.

The case for Davis — now and, if his team sustains its high level of play, later — should include some very important (but very different) intangibles, too.

First, a huge part of great coaching is great teaching, especially the kind that translates well from the practice court to game day. When players learn and digest important concepts well enough to implement them consistently, their team inevitably improves, and that reflects well on the entire coaching staff.

About a month ago, when the Tar Heels were coming off back-to-back losses to UConn and Kentucky, they were not defending or rebounding at a high level. Davis even called his players out publicly for their lack of intensity on the boards, and privately the Heels spent a lot of practice time on both areas.

One month later, UNC has elevated its defense and rebounding to the point where the Tar Heels are, statistically, among the most well-balanced teams in the entire country.

According to the efficiency statistics at, only five teams rank among the “Sweet 16” on both offense and defense: #3 Carolina, #5 Houston (15-2), #12 Arizona (13-4), #13 Auburn (15-2) and #20 BYU (14-3). #2 Purdue (16-2) and #6 Tennessee (13-4) are the only other teams at or near both thresholds.

Another factor that should work in Davis’ favor, if the Tar Heels’ success continues, is the reality that every experienced player in his 2024 rotation endured something extremely negative on the court last season. Just as success can beget success, failure can beget failure.

UNC veterans Armando Bacot and RJ Davis — just last year — played central roles in one of the most disappointing seasons in Carolina’s storied history. Transfer Harrison Ingram never experienced a winning record, or a single postseason game, during his two years at Stanford. Transfer Cormac Ryan suffered through an 11-21 season, a 14th-place ACC finish and the departure of his coach last year at Notre Dame. Transfer Jae’Lyn Withers started at Louisville for the past three seasons, during which he witnessed a coaching change and (last year) played on one of the worst teams (4-28) in program history. Transfer Paxson Wojcik lost more games than he won during his past two seasons as a starter for Brown.

Nevertheless, those same guys are winning — a lot — in the immediate aftermath of those psychological scars and sometimes-extreme disappointments. That’s a credit to those players, for sure, but as their leader, Davis deserves an enormous amount of credit, too.