North Carolina-Michigan battle proof New York hoops still alive

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — RJ Davis wanted to make something clear on Friday in advance of leading his North Carolina Tar Heels against Michigan State in Saturday’s NCAA Tournament second round at the Spectrum Center for a berth in the Sweet 16.

New York high school and college basketball aren’t dead — despite some opinions to the contrary.

Davis, a senior guard from White Plains via Archbishop Stepinac High, and his Spartans’ backcourt counterpart, Tyson Walker, a fellow senior from Long Island via Christ the King High in Queens, are proof positive of that.

Davis leads the No. 1-seeded Tar Heels (28-7) in scoring with 21.1 points per game.

RJ Davis makes a move on Julian Brown during North Carolina’s blowout win over Wagner. AP

Walker lead the Spartans with 18.2 points per game.

Including those two stars, this regional in Charlotte is well-represented by New York Metropolitan Area, with Tar Heels graduate-student guard Cormac Ryan from Manhattan via the Collegiate School, and Elliot Cadeau, a freshman guard out of West Orange, N.J.

So, three of the five starters from North Carolina are from the Met Area.

Then there is Zakai Zeigler, the junior point guard for Tennessee who averages 11.9 points per game. He’s from Long Island.

Texas guard Ithiel Horton is from Vauxhall, N.J., in Union County, just outside Manhattan.

Davis said he embraces the New York flavor in this regional.

“I like to cherish it a lot, because a lot of people like to say New York basketball is down, but just to have a lot of New Yorkers here representing — especially New York guards, it shows that we’re still here,” he said. “I don’t think there’s anything like New York guards.’’

Asked what sets New York guards apart, Davis said, “Our toughness, our mindset, our mentality, our confidence. All those traits play into how we are and I think every time we step onto the court, we have that belief that we can achieve anything and we live with no doubts.’’

Davis is fired up to play for the highest stakes against Walker since the two spent much time facing off against each other in high school.

“It’s always a great matchup, going up against New York guards,’’ he said. “It’s always like a back-and-forth game. It kind of feels like you’re at the park. Just from playing in high school, [Walker] was always really good and now he’s doing his thing in college. I’m looking forward to it.’’

Tyson Walker drives past D.J. Jeffries during Michigan State’s win over Mississippi State. AP

Walker, who’s very low-key and humble for such a star, feels like he owes one to Davis, whose high school team defeated his in the 2018 city championship.

“Yeah, he won,’’ Walker said Friday. “It was a good game. I remember I got into foul trouble early so I didn’t play much in the first half, but he definitely won.’’

Waler said he knows Davis “pretty well,’’ and added, “I pay attention to everything he does. New York guy, so I’m always watching. Good dude.’’

Asked to describe Davis’ game, Walker said, “He’s aggressive, confident, and you can’t take that away from somebody.’’

Davis called Walker “a low-key and real humble kid,’’ adding, “Those kinds of players are great players — humble and confident and low key. That’s excellence right there.’’

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, who’s old-school and traditionally is reticent about taking in transfer students because “I’m not for the leave-whenever-you-want. I think it hurts the kids in the end.’’

Three years ago, though, he welcomed Walker in as a transfer from Northeastern, with open arms.

“In his case, we knew he had a couple years [of eligibility] left and it ended up three because of COVID, so it wasn’t just a one-year stop,’’ Izzo said. “We had a need and he fit what we were looking for.’’

Izzo raved about Walker’s parents and his upbringing.

He, too, recalled the moment Walker went from simply being an excellent basketball player who does all the right things to another level.

“His first year, he had a decent year and we played Duke in the NCAA [Tournament] and lost, we got in the locker room — he’s kind of a quiet kid — and the first thing he said to me was, ‘Can I talk to the team?’ ’’ Izzo told The Post. “I said, ‘Sure.’ He thanked everybody and told them that this was the thrill of his life. It was so real and it was so cool and it was so unentitled, which we have too much of right now.

“After that, I went from really liking him to falling in love with the guy. I said, ‘Wow, that was one of the great speeches that I’ll always remember.’ He’s not a big vocal guy. That was a moment where I think he made a lot of people realize, ‘You guys got it lucky; don’t take it for granted.’ And I appreciated that.

“What does he bring?’ He knows everybody. He’s played in all the big games. He knows RJ. He’s liked by everybody. That’s what I like about him.’’

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