North Carolina flirts with becoming worst preseason No. 1 team

February 13, 2023;  Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA;  Miami, Florida Hurricanes defenseman Vuga Poplar (55) hits the fourth ball from North Carolina Tar Hills defenseman Caleb Love (2) in the second half at the Dean E. Smith Center.  Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
Caleb Love (center) and the Tar Heels had a tough time in February, going 1-4 this month. The last loss was on Monday against Wooga Poplar (55) and Miami. (Bob Donnan/USA TODAY Sports)

With every wayward jumper, every missed pass, and every defensive flop, North Carolina is getting closer to shameful history.

The Tar Heels are one step ahead of becoming the most disappointing No. 1 preseason team in the modern era of men’s college basketball.

With all but one returning from last year’s national finalist, a valuable transfer to fill the vacancy, and three top 100 freshmen poised to provide depth, North Carolina entered the season as the clear choice of AP voters as the national title favorite. Barely four months later, the Tar Heels are long out of the top 25 and need a strong regular season finish to qualify for the NCAA Tournament.

An 80–72 home loss to Miami on Monday night reduced North Carolina’s overall score to 16–10 and just 8–7 in an unusually weak ACC. Worse still, the Tar Heels have lost all nine Quadrant games they’ve played this season. North Carolina’s outstanding victories over Michigan and Ohio states in December looked more rewarding than they are now. The only reason the Tar Heels remain a bubbly team at all is because they didn’t have any really big losses.

While high-profile college basketball teams fall behind each season, the No. 1 team in the AP preseason rarely struggles in deep February.

Every preseason No. 1 has been in the NCAA Tournament since the number of players increased to 64 in 1985. Nearly two-thirds of these teams received the No. 1 seed, and all but three received the No. 3 seed or higher. It wasn’t until the 2013-14 season that Kentucky failed to get at least 5th, and the Wildcats, under Julius Randle, saved a poor regular season by surprisingly running from 8th to the national title.

The No. 1 preseason ranking was also a fairly reliable tool for predicting NCAA tournament success. Eighteen No. 1 pre-season teams have reached the Final Four since 1985. Six climbed the ladder and cut the nets. Conversely, only eight preseason #1s have failed to make the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament since 1985. It wasn’t until the 2004–05 season that Kansas were eliminated to the Round of 16, losing to No. 14 Bucknell.

February 13, 2023;  Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA;  North Carolina Tar Heels head coach Hubert Davis reacts in the second half at the Dean E. Smith Center.  Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
North Carolina head coach Hubert Davis reacts in the second half at the Dean E. Smith Center on Monday night. (Bob Donnan/USA TODAY Sports)

Of course, it’s too early to bury a team as talented and experienced as North Carolina. After all, a handful of the same Tar Heels were the mainstay of a team that flirted with the bubble last year before catching fire in mid-February, toppling Duke twice and moving closer to winning the national title.

And yet, sophomore coach Hubert Davis hasn’t inspired this year’s team to be as cohesive and thirsty, and parts of it don’t seem to fit together as well as last year’s team. Armando Backot is still one of the best big men in college basketball, Caleb Love and R. J. Davis are back-to-back shooters who can hit for a long time, and Leaky Black remains an elite defender, but the Tar Heels are sorely lacking in durability and three-point shooting. . It’s safe to stretch forward Brady Maneka.

This season, the Tar Heels are only shooting 30.5% from 30%, which is the worst in the ACC and one of the worst in the country. Northwest transfer Pete Nance hasn’t come close to doubling Manek’s 40.3-percent three-point shooting rate, and Love and Davis are too low-performing, leaving North Carolina with no credible threat to the perimeter.

The repercussions of this were evident in the second half of Monday’s loss to Miami. The hurricanes blocked driveways and made it difficult for Backot to obtain passes, forcing the Tar Heels to attempt to bypass them from the perimeter. North Carolina made just 5 of 31 shots from behind the arc, three of which came in the second half after the Tar Heels were already trailing by double figures.

“In the second half, they washed off the paint better,” North Carolina head coach Hubert Davis told reporters in Chapel Hill after the game. “The only way to open it is to do some perimeter jumps, and we just couldn’t do that.”

Asked what he could change to give Backot more strokes in the paint, Davis admitted there were no easy answers.

“There are different ways to pass the ball to him in different parts of the court,” the North Carolina coach said. “We can try other staff. But at the end of the day, we will need to take some pictures.”

North Carolina’s latest loss is the fourth in five games, and the schedule doesn’t get any easier. What follows is a visit to rival state North Carolina, a team that will be more motivated than any other to try and pay off the Tar Heels season. North Carolina’s only two home games left are against Duke (17-8) and Virginia (19-4).

Even worse, players’ frustration seems to be showing. After losing to Wake Forest last week, Backot told reporters that his locker room message was: “I’m not going to leave. If you want to be here, be there on Thursday. If not, just go home.”

These comments do not inspire confidence that North Carolina will find a foothold and create another surge at the end of the season.

Almost everyone thought North Carolina was the team that won 11 of their last 13 games last year, reached the national title, and retired Coach K. Looking back, this historical period now seems to be an exception.


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