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North Carolina likely to go from preseason No. 1 to missing NCAA tournament

Mar 9, 2023; Greensboro, NC, USA; North Carolina Tar Heels forward Leaky Black (1) drives as Virginia Cavaliers guard Armaan Franklin (4) defends in the first half of the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament at Greensboro Coliseum.  Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
North Carolina is approaching a certain level of infamy. (Photo by Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports)

North Carolina had already lost more games than any other AP preseason No. 1 team ever has.

Now the underachieving Tar Heels are on the verge of making some more ignominious history.

A 68-59 loss to Virginia in the ACC quarterfinals Thursday night likely extinguished North Carolina’s hopes of earning an at-large NCAA tournament bid. The Tar Heels have run out of chances to improve a resume that doesn’t compare well with other bubble teams.

North Carolina will enter Selection Sunday with a 20-13 overall record and a dearth of marquee wins. The Tar Heels are just 1-9 in Quadrant 1 games, their lone victory coming at home against Virginia on Feb. 25.

While North Carolina did beat Michigan and Ohio State in non-conference play, those victories looked more helpful in December than they do now. The Wolverines are likely on the wrong side of the NCAA tournament bubble and the Buckeyes finished second to last in the Big Ten.

After North Carolina lost at home to rival Duke in its regular-season finale, the Tar Heels entered the ACC tournament needing a deep run to maintain realistic hope of securing an NCAA bid. They clobbered 10th-seeded Boston College, 85-61, but second-seeded Virginia opened a 10-point lead midway through the second half and fended off every North Carolina run thereafter.

While ballyhooed college basketball teams underachieve every season, North Carolina is easily the most disappointing preseason No. 1 team in men's college basketball’s modern era.

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.

North Carolina missing the NCAA tournament would have been difficult to fathom only a few months ago. With all but one starter returning from last year’s national runners-up and a prized transfer filling that vacancy, the Tar Heels seemed poised to pick up where they left off last year when they ended Mike Krzyzewski’s storied career in the Final Four and nearly won the national title two nights later.

What went wrong for North Carolina? In a word, everything.

The cohesiveness and hunger that the Tar Heels displayed last March went missing. The pieces didn’t seem to mesh as well either. Armando Bacot remained one of college basketball’s top big men and Leaky Black was still an elite glue guy, but North Carolina missed Brady Manek’s 3-point shooting and toughness and streak-shooting Caleb Love and R.J. Davis shot the Tar Heels out of too many games.

North Carolina shot just over 31% from behind the arc this season, 322nd in the nation. Northwestern transfer Pete Nance didn’t come close to duplicating Manek’s dependable 40.3% 3-point shooting.

A year ago, North Carolina languished on the bubble deep into February before catching fire for the next six weeks. Many kept waiting and waiting for a similar run to end this season, but these Tar Heels didn’t have it in them.