North Carolina could miss NCAA Tournament if things don’t change

You keep waiting for it to click, for the Tar Heels to play up to their No. 1 preseason ranking, to go on a run like last year’s group that reached the national championship game after a rough start.

There is too much talent. Too much experience. Too much pedigree. Four returning starters and a blue-chip transfer. And, yet, it just hasn’t happened yet. North Carolina is playing with fire, flirting ever so slightly with that three-letter curse word — NIT — nobody in Chapel Hill wants to utter if it doesn’t finish strong.

The Tar Heels are a mediocre 7-5 in the very mediocre ACC and a problematic 1-7 in Quad 1 games. Their NET ranking of 44 isn’t going to save them. Their best wins, over Ohio State and Michigan, don’t look nearly as good as they did at the time. They’re 1-4 against the top-six of the pedestrian ACC. They have work to do to be part of March Madness, even if Bracket Matrix, the website which averages out 93 tournament projections, lists them as a low eight-seed at the moment. The strongest part of the résumé is the absence of a bad loss.

On paper, it is still a formidable roster, the key components of last year’s March run — Armando Bacot, Caleb Love, R.J. Davis and Leaky Black — all appearing in at least 22 games. Northwestern transfer Pete Nance was supposed to replace Brady Manek as a stretch 4.

It hasn’t clicked.

Armando Bacot #5 and Puff Johnson #14 of the North Carolina Tar Heels battle Tyrese Proctor #5, Kyle Filipowski #30 and Mark Mitchell #25 of the Duke Blue Devils for a loose ball during their game at Cameron Indoor Stadium on February 04, 2023 in Durham, North Carolina. Duke won 63-57.
The Tar Heels aren’t playing their best after reaching the national title game last year.
Grant Halverson/Getty Images

North Carolina is one of the worst 3-point shooting teams in the country, ranked 317th nationally at 30.8 percent, down from 36.2 a year ago. It is playing slower, its tempo falling from 39th last season to 109th this year. Bacot, the preseason Player of the Year in the ACC, has put up similar numbers to a year ago. So has Davis, the junior from White Plains. Nance and Love, though, have regressed. Both have struggled from the 3-point line, and have not scored efficiently. Love is hitting only 28.6 percent of his 3-point attempts, and is taking seven per game. His assist totals have diminished.

Last year’s team started to turn it around in the third week in January. This edition just came off narrow losses to Pittsburgh and Duke. It’s time to get concerned. The one thing working in North Carolina’s favor is the remaining schedule offers it opportunities to boost its résumé, four Quad 1 games before the ACC Tournament. But that only helps if the Tar Heels can win some of those games.

Tar Heels
North Carolina’s Leaky Black gets heckled by Duke fan.
Getty Images

North Carolina head coach Hubert Davis directs the team against Pittsburgh during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023, in Chapel Hill, N.C.
North Carolina coach Hubert Davis has been unable to piece together another successful season.
AP Photo/Chris Seward

Thus far, they have faltered against quality teams in crunch time, seven of their eight losses by eight points or less. That’s the biggest surprise of all, that this experienced team has been unable to find a way to pull out close games.

It’s still only early February. Coach Hubert Davis still has the talent to rekindle last March’s magic, particularly in a down year across the sport without any clear favorites. Time, however, is not on his side.

Hail Mary

Learn the name Aidan Mahaney. He’s one of the premier freshmen in the country. His coming-out party came late Saturday night in Saint Mary’s mammoth victory over Gonzaga that increased the Gaels’ lead in the West Coast Conference to two games. The 6-foot-2 guard absolutely torched the 12th-ranked Zags down the stretch and in overtime, scoring or assisting on 19 of 21 points in one impressive stretch.

Aidan Mahaney goes up for a layup for St. Mary’s.

The Moraga, Calif. native is the most recent top guard at the California school, following the likes of Patty Mills and Matthew Dellavedova. Led by Mahaney, No. 18 Saint Mary’s and its fourth-ranked defense based on efficiency is a legitimate second-weekend threat, having already defeated quality mid-majors Vermont, Hofstra and Oral Roberts, and now owning top-25 victories over Gonzaga and No. 22 San Diego.

Game of the Week:

No. 10 Texas at No. 8 Kansas, Monday, 9 p.m.

Rodney Terry deserves National Coach of the Year consideration. He has to be at the top of the list when it comes to Big 12 Coach of the Year honors. Texas, led by Terry, is 12-3 since the suspension — and later firing — of Chris Beard following his arrest for domestic violence. The Longhorns sit all alone atop the treacherous Big 12 after their gutty win at No. 7 Kansas State on Saturday, and now will visit Kansas with a chance to really solidify their standing in the powerhouse conference. Terry has handled a difficult situation with a deft touch, ensuring this talented team didn’t let distractions sidetrack its promising season.


  1. Purdue, Alabama, Arizona, Kansas
  2. Tennessee, Texas, Houston, UCLA
  3. Iowa State, Virginia, Kansas State, Marquette
  4. TCU, Xavier, Baylor, Gonzaga

Stock Watch

Shaheen Holloway – Up

A month ago, Seton Hall seemed buried. Today, it is very much in the NCAA Tournament picture, in the lead to finish fifth in the Big East and land the last bye in the conference tournament. Holloway, the darling of last March after leading 15th-seeded Saint Peter’s to the Elite Eight, has gotten everything out of these hard-nosed, though limited, Pirates. They have won eight of their last 10 games and are defending at an elite level, ranked 15th at that end of the floor in efficiency. Remember, Holloway hasn’t had his top big man, Alexis Yetna, all season due to a knee injury. It, of course, shouldn’t be a surprise to see him overachieving after what he did at Saint Peter’s.

Pittsburgh Panthers guard Nelly Cummings reacts after making a three pointer against Miami last month.
Pittsburgh Panthers guard Nelly Cummings reacts after making a three pointer against Miami last month.
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Pittsburgh — Up

Once an NCAA Tournament mainstay, the Panthers haven’t gone dancing in seven years. But that doesn’t really describe their struggles. The former Big East program hasn’t had a winning season since the 2015-16 campaign. It hasn’t won more than six league games since that year. This winter, though, Jeff Capel has flipped that script, guiding Pittsburgh to within one game of the ACC lead and what should be a return to the tournament in his fifth year after massive wins over No. 23 Miami and North Carolina. He hit the transfer portal hard, landing difference-makers Nelly Cummings (Colgate), Blake Hinson (Ole Miss) and Greg Elliott (Marquette), and it has paid off.

St. John’s – Down

Everything that could go wrong has of late for the Johnnies. The team is struggling, a game out of 10th place in the Big East, and looking at another year without reaching the postseason. Due to plane troubles, it arrived in Cincinnati just a few hours before Saturday’s ugly loss to Xavier. Wing David Jones lost his father to an illness Friday night and is back home in the Dominican Republic. Point guard Posh Alexander is battling ankle issues and isn’t the same player. It’s feeling more and more inevitable that St. John’s will have a new coach after this season, as the program heads in the wrong direction under Mike Anderson.

Jim Boeheim — Down

He threw three schools — Miami, Wake Forest and Pittsburgh — under the bus, accusing them of buying teams through Name, Image and Likeness (NIL), then walked it back somewhat in saying the latter two schools didn’t do that. He should be worried about Syracuse, which is barely inside the top 100 of the NET and will have to win the ACC Tournament to reach the dance. At the age of 78, he has clearly lost his fastball. The Orange are staring at their fourth straight season with less than 20 wins. That would be more times that Boeheim failed to win 20 games in a single season than in his first 43 years as Syracuse’s coach.

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