PHILADELPHIA — After the University of North Carolina men’s basketball team ended the N.C.A.A. tournament run by St. Peter’s on Sunday in the round of 8, winning, 69-49, the two coaches involved were facing different futures, albeit promising ones.
North Carolina’s Hubert Davis was still on track to become the first first-year coach to win the tournament, while Shaheen Holloway of St. Peter’s appeared destined for a coaching job at a bigger school and a better conference, perhaps as soon as this week.
After taking over last April from his mentor and predecessor, Roy Williams, Davis has guided the Tar Heels to the Final Four against their most hated rival, Duke, and can lead North Carolina to its seventh national championship and first since Williams did it in 2017. Nine other first-year coaches have guided a team to the Final Four, most recently Bill Guthridge with North Carolina in 1998.
But no coach has led his team to the championship in his first full season as a college head coach. Michigan’s Steve Fisher took over as the interim head coach in 1989 and went 6-0 on the way to the championship. Jim Calhoun was at Connecticut for 27 years before he won his first title, the same for Jim Boeheim at Syracuse. Williams was a head coach for 17 years before he won his initial title with North Carolina in 2005. Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski was on the job 16 years before he won the first of his five championships.
“His team’s gotten better, every week they’ve gotten better all the way down, and if they’ve had a big loss, they’ve bounced back the next week and played well,” Williams, 71, who attended both North Carolina games in Philadelphia, said in a phone interview about Davis, 51.
The Tar Heels were considered an N.C.A.A. tournament bubble team late in the season, but Davis got his players to win when it mattered most. They have won 10 of their last 11 games, and 16 of their last 19. They spoiled the final home game at Cameron Indoor Stadium for Krzyzewski when they beat the Blue Devils on March 5.
“There’s not many guys that can coach to go into Cameron Indoor Stadium and beat Duke with all the hullabaloo going on about Mike Krzyzewski’s last game, and he focused on the game and got his kids to focus on the game,” Williams said of Davis.
“We played Baylor in Fort Worth, we’re the 8 seed, they’re the 1 seed. He got our guys to focus on the game. So he’s fantastic, fantastic, fantastic.”
A former Tar Heel guard, Davis spent 12 years in the N.B.A. and was a member of the Knicks team that reached the N.B.A. finals in 1994. He ranks second in the N.B.A. in career 3-point-shooting percentage. He also spent nine years as an assistant to Williams before getting his first head coaching opportunity at his alma mater. He credited his former Knicks coaches, including Pat Riley, now the president of the Miami Heat, as well as Jeff Van Gundy and Don Nelson, with mentoring him in the game.
“The thing I learned from Coach Riley is how hard you have to prepare to put yourself in a position to possibly be successful, and he taught me how to be a pro, how to practice, how to compete on every play, shootaround, practice, games, and he really put me in a position to be the best player that I could be in the N.B.A.,” Davis said.
He added: “He’s one of my favorite coaches that I’ve ever played for, and I think about my time with him as a player and use parts of what he taught me to try to teach these guys every day.”
As for St. Peter’s Holloway, the 45-year-old Queens native coached a team that came out of nowhere to become the darlings of the tournament. The Peacocks were the first No. 15 seed to make the final eight in tournament history.
The Peacocks won the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament to earn the conference’s automatic bid to the N.C.A.A. tournament. Iona, coached by the Hall of Famer Rick Pitino, was the top seed and the favorite. But Iona lost to Rider early in the conference tournament, and St. Peter’s emerged to take the nation by storm.
It is now widely expected that Holloway, who beat out Kobe Bryant for most valuable player honors in the 1996 McDonald’s all-American game and then went on to lead Seton Hall to the round of 16 in 2000 as its point guard, will move on to a higher-profile job, possibly at his alma mater. Kevin Willard, who coached Seton Hall this season, was announced as Maryland’s next coach last week.
“I’ll be honest with you,” Willard said after his team lost in the first round to Texas Christian. “If I’m not here next year, I’d love if Shaheen Holloway is here. That would be the happiest thing to happen to me.”
Pitino had endorsed Holloway for the Seton Hall job, too, even before Willard had left the Big East school, calling him “a young superstar” and saying Seton Hall “shouldn’t even make another call.”
One popular joke going around basketball circles as St. Peter’s made its run was that Maryland might have hired the wrong guy. After all, Willard was 1-5 in the N.C.A.A. tournament at Seton Hall, while Holloway is now 3-1 at tiny St. Peter’s, all this year.
“I’m not worried about that right now,” Holloway said in his postgame news conference Sunday when asked about his professional future. “I’m worried about those 15 young men whose hearts are broken and really down. It’s my job as their leader to cheer them up, make sure they understand what they did the last two weeks. And like I said, we’re going to walk out of here the same way we walked in here, with our head up.”
If he does take the Seton Hall job, Holloway is in line for a huge raise. He made $266,344 in 2019 at St. Peter’s, while Willard’s salary at Seton Hall before he left was reportedly just south of $2.5 million per season. He then agreed to a seven-year deal worth $29.4 million at Maryland.
Holloway, and his agent, now stand in a commanding position. He has garnered the respect of coaches, players and fans around the nation.
“The thing that just jumps right out is how much his players love playing for him, and they have his personality,” Davis said of Holloway ahead of the game. “They have a chip on their shoulder and a toughness and a confidence to give everything that they have on both ends of the floor on every play. And they’re here for a reason, because they’re an incredible team, but they’re also incredibly tied together. Tremendous chemistry. On Sunday, it’ll be our toughest game of the year.”