North Carolina has gone from starting the season at No. 1 to missing the NCAA Tournament.
On Sunday, the Tar Heels officially became the first top-ranked team in the Associated Press preseason poll to miss March Madness since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985.
The Tar Heels (20-13) return four starters from a team that made a magical run to the NCAA title game last March with Hubert Davis, who was in his first season replacing retired Hall of Famer Fame Roy Williams. The highlight was beating Duke in the Final Four and sending Hall of Fame coach Mike Krzyzewski into retirement in the first NCAA Tournament meeting between the storied rivals.
However, little was planned in a season of unfulfilled expectations, until being listed as one of the top four teams out of the field.
The Tar Heels were one of the worst 3-point shooting teams in program history, and that allowed defenders to drop inside AP All-ACC Armando Bacot and take out the driving lanes while challenging them to make outside shots. They also had an uncanny knack for not closing out tight games or making simple mistakes that proved critical as the longer games wore on.
The combination first knocked them out of the AP Top 25 for good before the start of 2023, then made an unthinkable Selection Sunday result a reality.
“The pressure I think can get to everybody,” Bacot said after a second loss to the Blue Devils in the regular season finale. “I mean, we’re human. I’d definitely say it came into our locker room a little bit.”
[Full bracket: NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament]
Of the 38 teams ranked No. 1 in the preseason AP since 1985, 18 reached at least the Final Four, and six won the NCAA championship. The Tar Heels were among that group in 2016, losing the title to Villanova on Kris Jenkins’ last-second 3-pointer in Houston, ironically the site of this year’s Final Four. But they returned the following year to claim the title that had eluded them.
This year’s team was trying to become the third in program history to achieve that redemption arc. The other came in 1982, when a team that lost to Isiah Thomas and Indiana came back to beat Patrick Ewing and Georgetown with a roster featuring program greats James Worthy, Sam Perkins and a skinny freshman named Michael Jordan.
However, this year’s Tar Heels couldn’t even get that shot.
They didn’t have bad losses, but they went just 1-9 in Quadrant 1 games which surpasses an NCAA resume. Highlight: There was a four-hour overtime loss in November against eventual No. 1 overall seed Alabama in a game that highlighted both the Tar Heels’ ability to play with nobody, as well as their inability to shut down a quality opponent considering they were leading afterwards. half time in eight of their 13 losses.
The Tar Heels came into the home state Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament in Greensboro knowing they had work to do to bolster their NCAA chances. They beat Boston College, but struggled against No. 13 Virginia’s defense, while Bacot left early with an ankle injury for BC’s win.
By the end of that 68-59 loss, the Tar Heels seemed resigned to Sunday’s result.
“It’s a lot of excitement just to see from last year, the kind of run we had,” guard RJ Davis said. “As you say, looking in from the outside this year, it’s tough. It’s a tough position to be in.”
Report from The Associated Press.
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