With every wayward jumper, every errant pass and every defensive breakdown, North Carolina is edging closer to some ignominious history.
The Tar Heels are on pace to become the most disappointing preseason No. 1 team in men's college basketball’s modern era.
With all but one starter returning from last year’s national runners-up, a prized transfer filling that vacancy and three top-100 freshmen set to provide depth, North Carolina entered the season as AP voters’ runaway pick as national title favorite. But not even four months later, the Tar Heels have long since plummeted out of the Top 25 and need a strong regular-season finish just to make the NCAA tournament.
An 80-72 home loss to Miami on Monday dropped North Carolina to 16-10 overall and just 8-7 in an unusually weak ACC. Even worse, the Tar Heels have dropped all nine Quadrant 1 games they’ve played this season. North Carolina’s marquee non-league wins over Michigan and Ohio State looked more helpful in December than they do now. The only reason the Tar Heels even remain a bubble team is their lack of a truly bad loss.
While ballyhooed college basketball teams underachieve every season, it’s exceedingly rare for the AP’s preseason No. 1 team to struggle deep into 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 No. 3 seeds or better. Only 2013-14 Kentucky failed to secure at least a No. 5 seed, and those Julius Randle-led Wildcats salvaged an underachieving regular season with an out-of-nowhere run from a No. 8 seed to 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 down nets. Conversely, since 1985, only eight preseason No. 1s have failed to get to the NCAA tournament’s second weekend. Only 2004-05 Kansas crashed out in the Round of 64, famously falling to 14th-seeded Bucknell.
It’s too soon to bury a team as talented and experienced as North Carolina, of course. After all, a handful of these same Tar Heels were pillars of a team that flirted with the bubble last year before catching fire in mid-February, twice toppling Duke and coming within a bucket or two of winning a national title.
Yet second-year coach Hubert Davis hasn't inspired the same cohesiveness or hunger from this year's team, nor do its pieces seem to mesh as well as those on last year's team. Armando Bacot is still one of college basketball’s top big men, streak-shooting Caleb Love and R.J. Davis can both carry an offense for long stretches, and Leaky Black remains an elite defender, but the Tar Heels greatly miss the toughness and 3-point shooting that stretch forward Brady Manek provided.
This season's Tar Heels are shooting just 30.5% from behind the arc, worst in the ACC and among the worst in the nation. Northwestern transfer Pete Nance hasn’t come close to duplicating Manek’s 40.3% 3-point shooting, and Love and Davis are both settling for low-percentage shots too often, leaving North Carolina without a dependable perimeter threat.
The consequences of that were obvious in the second half of Monday’s loss to Miami. The Hurricanes walled off driving lanes and made it difficult for Bacot to receive entry passes, forcing the Tar Heels to try to beat them from the perimeter. North Carolina made just five of 31 shots from behind the arc, with three of those makes coming in the second half after the Tar Heels had fallen behind by double figures.
“In the second half, they did a better job of closing down that paint,” North Carolina head coach Hubert Davis told reporters in Chapel Hill after the game. “The only way that you could open that up is to make some perimeter jump shots, and we just weren’t able to do it.”
Asked what he could tweak to get Bacot more touches in the paint, Davis acknowledged that there were no easy answers.
“There’s different ways we can get the ball to him at different parts of the floor,” the North Carolina coach said. “We can try some different personnel. But at the end of the day, we’re going to have to be able to make some shots.”
North Carolina’s latest loss was its fourth in five games, and the schedule doesn’t get easier. Up next is a visit to rival NC State, the team that will be more motivated than any other to try to snuff out the Tar Heels' season. The only two home games North Carolina has left are against Duke (17-8) and Virginia (19-4).
Making matters worse, players’ frustration appears to be showing. After a loss to Wake Forest last week, Bacot told reporters that his locker room message was, “I'm not gonna quit. If you want to be here, be there on Thursday. If not, just go home.'"
Those comments don't inspire confidence that North Carolina will find its footing and put together another late-season surge.
Most everyone thought North Carolina was the team that won 11 of its final 13 games last year, reached the national title game and sent Coach K into retirement. In retrospect, that historic stretch now seems like the outlier.