1-On-1 With UNC Star RJ Davis

By David Glenn
North Carolina Sports Network

In a sport that allows 13 scholarships, only two current North Carolina players were on the floor regularly for both the Tar Heels’ thrilling run to the 2022 national championship game and their disastrous sequel in 2022-23, when they became the first team in modern college basketball history to fall from a preseason #1 ranking to missing the NCAA Tournament entirely.

One is fifth-year senior center Armando Bacot, who is playing his fifth full season of college basketball in 2023-24 thanks to an NCAA rule that granted an extra year of eligibility to athletes impacted by the COVID-shortened 2019-20 season, when Bacot was a UNC freshman.

The other is fourth-year senior guard RJ Davis, who arrived at UNC in the summer of 2020, during the height of the COVID pandemic, and since has experienced an extended roller-coaster ride in Chapel Hill.

A prep All-American and record-setting scorer from White Plains, N.Y., Davis increased his responsibility level and production during each of his first three seasons with the Tar Heels.

As a freshman, while serving mainly in a reserve role, he finished fifth on the team in scoring, at 8.4 points per game, but had almost as many turnovers (54) as assists (56).

As a sophomore, Davis (13.5 ppg) became a full-time starter next to his good friend Caleb Love (15.9), and they eventually teamed with Bacot (16.3), Oklahoma transfer Brady Manek (15.1) and defensive ace Leaky Black (4.9) on the sensational quintet that first saved, then truly electrified, the Tar Heels’ 2021-22 season.

During their junior campaign, Love (16.7) and Davis (16.1) led the Tar Heels in scoring, but their backcourt chemistry never quite worked, and UNC’s season gradually fell apart. Carolina finished dead-last in the ACC in 3-point shooting, at only 30.2 percent, after Love fell all the way to 29.9 percent. (Davis remained above 36 percent, as in the previous season.) The Heels also were next-to-last in the league in assists, although Davis, an honorable mention All-ACC and second-team All-ACC Tournament selection, led the team with 3.2 per game.

The 2023-24 Tar Heels were ranked #19 in this year’s preseason Associated Press poll, after the offseason departures of three starters and a whopping nine players overall. That latter number comprised two departing seniors and seven outgoing transfers (the highest single-season total in Carolina basketball history), including the mercurial Love (Arizona).

In UNC’s season-opening 86-70 victory over Radford on Monday, Davis (13 points, three rebounds, two assists, one steal) joined Bacot (25 points, 13 rebounds, two blocks), Notre Dame transfer Cormac Ryan (13 points, 3-7 threes, three assists, one steal) and Stanford transfer Harrison Ingram (12 points, 2-5 threes, four rebounds, three assists, two blocks) as a starter, double-digit scorer and high-impact player for the Tar Heels.

Amidst his television visits with the ACC Network and his podium time in front of the assembled media in attendance at the ACC’s recent Basketball Tip-Off event in Charlotte, Davis took time for this one-on-one visit with award-winning broadcaster David Glenn of the new North Carolina Sports Network.

DG: Let’s start with a goofy question. We know you’re not related to your coach, Hubert Davis, but you do obviously have the same last name, you’ve been together for four years now, and you are a prominent UNC guard, the same position he played for the Tar Heels long ago. Do you ever hear any teacher’s pet-type stuff from your teammates?

Davis: No, not really. I do get a lot of, is (Coach Davis), like, your uncle or something? It is kind of cool to have my last name and his last name the same, though.

DG: Your journey at UNC has been amazing in some ways and a roller-coaster in other ways. How do you put into words experiencing both the stunning run to the national championship game two years ago and the massive disappointment of last season?

Davis: Well, I think my path was destined the way it was and set up the way it was just because. I think that’s my journey, and I think that’s what God had set for me.

But in terms of going on the national championship run, that’s probably the greatest feeling I’ve ever felt in basketball, period. In terms of the following year, last year, not having the year that we wanted to, I just feel like that’s something that was needed. It was a little bit of a humbling experience, time to take a step back a little bit and reflect, and come back strong the next year.

DG: You were at the same high school for four years, so you got to grow up together with your teammates on some state championship teams. At UNC, you just lost nine players from last year’s team, and you and Armando are playing with seven new teammates. Can this new group build closeness, togetherness and chemistry in such a compressed period of time?

Davis: Yeah, I think that’s what’s been so great. It’s definitely hard to say goodbye to the guys you came into college with, because those are relationships and a brotherhood that’s gonna go beyond basketball and beyond our time at UNC.

But I think what makes our (new) chemistry go so far is that the new guys have made it easier for us, the returning players. They came in with open arms and a personality that’s fit the locker room.

It’s a vibe that’s different, but it’s a good different. That’s something that I’ve definitely been impressed by, and it’s definitely something that’s been going well for us.

DG: Caleb Love was quoted saying that he was “hurt” by how his UNC exit interview went with Coach Davis after last season. You and Caleb spent a lot of time together over the last three years, through a lot of ups and downs. How do you describe to those outside your locker room what went right, what went wrong and these fresh starts for both Caleb and Carolina?

Davis: I think, like you said, at the end of the day, we’re all kids, and we’re all trying to figure our lives out, trying to figure things out. I think sometimes there can be a mental toll. I think change is sometimes needed, for both sides.

I know Caleb, that’s like my brother to me and forever will be. We were college roommates before COVID started to spike up — me, him and Day’Ron (Sharpe) — and we went to the national championship together. So that’s something that’s going to go beyond UNC.

But I think change is sometimes needed. I know for us, and the players that have left, they’re gonna be great wherever they are because of who they are as a human being and who they are as an athlete.

DG: Here in Charlotte, you’ve mentioned grit and “competitive edge” as things that maybe you didn’t have enough of, as a team, a year ago. What newcomers have shown those things, and where do those things show up most?

Davis: I think it’s a mix of all of it — in games, in practice, when the coaches aren’t around, open gym.

But I think it’s because they’re all coming with a chip on their shoulder. They’re all coming with a mindset, a mentality, of they want to win, and they’re doing whatever it takes to win. I think that’s what’s special and what’s needed. I think they’re all ready to fulfill their role.

I think this would be something great for us, because sometimes that competitiveness is needed. It pushes each other to go to that limit and above that. So I’m here for it.

DG: You and I are looking at each other eye-to-eye right now, so we’re about six feet tall. In my day-to-day life, I feel either normal-sized or sometimes even a bit taller than most. At this event, though, I sometimes feel tiny. This is your world all the time. What’s that like for you?

Davis: If I’m walking around campus, or I’m just by myself or with a teammate my size, I feel fine. But if I’m walking around with Mando (listed at 6-11) or J-Wit (6-9 Louisville transfer Jae’Lyn Withers), it’s just, like, annoying. You know what I’m saying?

But going into the paint, I have confidence going in, knowing that I’m gonna make the layup or make the tough finish. I’m definitely able to finish amongst the trees.

Thanks for joining us, R.J.

Thanks for having me.