With every wayward jumper, errant pass, and defensive breakdown, North Carolina is closing in on an ignominious story.
The Tar Heels are on their way to becoming the most disappointing No. 1 men’s preseason team in the modern era of college basketball.
With all but one starter returning from last year’s national finalists, a prized transfer filling that vacancy, and three of the top 100 freshmen ready to provide depth, North Carolina entered the season as that fleeting choice of AP voters as a favorite for the national title. Not even four months later, the Tar Heels have long since dropped from the Top 25 and need a strong end to the regular season just to make the NCAA Tournament.
An 80-72 home loss to Miami on Monday night dropped North Carolina to 16-10 overall and just 8-7 in an unusually weak ACC. Worse, the Tar Heels dropped all nine Quadrant 1 games they played this season. North Carolina’s non-championship wins over Michigan and Ohio State looked more useful in December than they do now. The only reason the Tar Heels even remain a bubble team is their lack of a really bad loss.
While hot college basketball teams don’t make it every season, it’s extremely rare for the AP’s No. 1 preseason team to struggle through February.
Every preseason No. 1 has made the NCAA Tournament since the field expanded to 64 in 1985. Nearly two-thirds of those teams have landed No. 1 seeds and all but three have earned a No. 1 seed. series #3 or better. Only 2013-14 Kentucky failed to secure at least a No. 5 seed, and those Wildcats led by Julius Randle salvaged an underperforming regular season with a run out of nowhere of a header from series #8 at the national title game.
The preseason No. 1 ranking has also been a fairly reliable tool for projecting NCAA tournament success. Eighteen preseason No. 1 teams have reached the Final Four since 1985. Six have climbed ladders and cut nets. Conversely, only eight preseason No. 1s have failed to make it to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament since 1985. Only the 2004-05 Kansas crashed out in the Round of 16, falling to the 14th seed Bucknell.
It’s too early to bury a team as talented and experienced as North Carolina, of course. After all, many of those same Tar Heels were mainstays of a team that flirted with the bubble last year before bursting into flames in mid-February, knocking Duke down twice and coming within a bucket or two of win a national title.
And yet, this season’s North Carolina team often doesn’t display the same cohesiveness or hunger as last year’s version at the end of the season, nor does its play seem nest. Armando Bacot is still one of the best big men in college basketball, Caleb Love and RJ Davis can both carry offense for long stretches, and Leaky Black remains an elite defenseman, but the Tar Heels greatly lack the tenacity and stretching 3-point shooting. striker Brady Manek provided.
This season’s Tar Heels are shooting just 30.5 percent from behind the arc, the worst in the ACC and one of the worst in the nation. Northwestern transfer Pete Nance failed to replicate Manek’s 40.3% shooting from 3-point range, and Love and Davis both shot less effectively than a year ago, leaving North Carolina North without a reliable perimeter threat.
The consequences of that were evident in the second half of Monday’s loss to Miami. The Hurricanes walled off the traffic lanes and made it difficult for Bacot to receive passes, forcing the Tar Heels to try to beat them from the perimeter. North Carolina made just 5 of 31 shots from behind the arc, with three of those shots coming in the second half after the Tar Heels had already fallen behind by double digits.
“In the second half, they were better at closing that paint,” North Carolina head coach Hubert Davis told reporters in Chapel Hill after the game. “The only way to open that up is to do perimeter jumps, and we just couldn’t do that.”
When asked what he could tweak to get more Bacot touches in the paint, Davis acknowledged there were no easy answers.
“There are different ways to send the ball to him at different parts of the field,” the North Carolina coach said. “We can try different staff members. But at the end of the day, we will have to be able to make some shots.
North Carolina’s latest loss is its fourth in five games, and the schedule doesn’t get any easier. Three of the Tar Heels’ last five games are on the road and the home games are against Duke (17-8) and Virginia (19-4).
Worse still, player frustration seems to be showing. After a loss to Wake Forest last week, Bacot told reporters his message in the locker room was: “I’m not going to give up. If you want to be here, be here on Thursday. Otherwise, go home.'”
It’s possible North Carolina will find their footing and stage another late-season push, but the Tar Heels have done little this season to suggest that’s likely.
Most people thought North Carolina was the team that won 11 of its last 13 games last year, reached the national title game and sent Coach K into retirement. In retrospect, this stretch now appears to be the outlier.
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