North Carolina started the year at No. 1 only to miss the NCAA Tournament. And that was enough for the Tar Heels to call it a season.
The Tar Heels on Sunday officially became the first top-ranked team in The Associated Press preseason poll to miss March Madness since the field’s expansion to 64 teams in 1985. Shortly after the NCAA field of 68 teams was revealed, the school announced it had “chosen not to participate” in the NIT to end its season.
In a statement, coach Hubert Davis said the focus all season had been for the team to reach its potential and have another shot at the NCAA title that had eluded the Tar Heels in last March’s magical run to the championship game. Instead, as Davis said, the season “wasn’t what we had hoped for.”
“Many factors go into postseason play and we believe now is the time to focus on moving ahead, preparing for next season and the opportunity to again compete for ACC and NCAA championships,” Davis said.
The statement came a few hours before the NIT field of 32 teams was to be unveiled.
The Tar Heels (20-13) returned four starters from last year’s wild postseason ride under Davis, who was in his first season replacing retired Hall-of-Famer Roy Williams. The highlight was beating Duke in the Final Four — and sending Hall-of-Fame coach Mike Krzyzewski into retirement — in the first-ever NCAA Tournament meeting between the famed rivals.
Yet little went to plan in a season of unfulfilled expectations, down to being listed as one of the first four teams outside the field.
The Tar Heels were one of the worst 3-point shooting teams in program history, and that allowed defenders to sag down on AP All-ACC big man Armando Bacot inside and take away driving lanes while daring them to make outside shots. They also had a mystifying knack for failing to close out tight games or making simple mistakes that proved critical the longer games wore on.
The combination first knocked them out of the AP Top 25 for good before the start of 2023, then turned a once-unthinkable Selection Sunday outcome into a reality.
“The pressure, I think, can get to everybody,” Bacot said after a second loss to the Blue Devils at the end of the regular season. “I mean, we’re human. I’d definitely say it somewhat got into our locker room.”
Of the 38 teams to be AP preseason No. 1 since 1985, 18 reached at least the Final Four, with six winning 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 next year to claim the title that had eluded them.
This year’s team was trying to become the third in program history to pull off that redemption arc. The other came in 1982, when a team that lost to Isiah Thomas and Indiana returned to beat Patrick Ewing and Georgetown with a roster featuring program greats James Worthy, Sam Perkins and a skinny freshman named Michael Jordan.
Yet this year’s Tar Heels couldn’t land the bid to even get that shot.
They had no bad losses yet stood at just 1-9 in Quadrant 1 games that top an NCAA resume. Most notably: there was a four-overtime November loss to eventual No. 1 overall NCAA Tournament seed Alabama in a game that highlighted both the Tar Heels’ ability to play with anyone yet also their inability to close out a quality opponent considering they led after halftime in eight of their 13 losses.
The Tar Heels arrived at the home-state Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament in Greensboro knowing they had to work to do to bolster their NCAA chances. They beat Boston College but struggled against No. 13 Virginia’s grinding defense, while Bacot exited early with an ankle injury from the BC win.
By the end of that 68-59 loss, the Tar Heels seemed resigned to Sunday’s outcome.
“It’s a lot of emotions just to see from last year, the type of run we made,” guard R.J. Davis said. “Like you said, looking from the outside in this year, it’s tough. It’s a tough position to be in.”