The NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament did not come into existence until 1939. The NIT had begun the year prior, and Ohio State coach Harold Olsen wanted the NCAA to get in on the action. The National Association of Basketball Coaches ran the first tournament before ceding control to the NCAA the following season.
In 1941, the third year of the tournament, the team that is now second all-time in tournament appearances, the North Carolina Tar Heels made their first ever trip to the “Big Dance.”
Bill Lange had originally come to UNC in 1936 as an assistant football coach. Yet ahead of the 1939-40 season, he was given an additional role: head coach of the basketball team. Going into that season, Carolina was coming off one of their more disappointing campaigns. Despite a solid returning cast and the addition of future star George Glamack, UNC went just 10-10 in the regular season, and then lost to Clemson in the Southern Conference Tournament in what was their first ever loss to the Tigers. That caused coach Walter Skidmore, who up until that point had been successful in Chapel Hill, to walk away from the job.
Lange was named coach and instituted a new style that emphasized possession and ball-handling. The changes helped Glamack put up a monster season and win national player of the year honors in the 1939-40 season. Lange’s first season in charge saw Carolina put up a 23-3 record and win the Southern Conference Tournament title.
The next year, UNC won the Southern regular season title despite some early struggles. They went 14-1 in league play, but went 7-5 out of conference. That included losses to the likes of Fordham, NYU, and Hanes Hosiery. However, they caught fire in league play, going on an eight-game winning streak at one point. That was eventually snapped by a Duke team that successfully slowed down the game to stop Glamack and Co. They likewise did the same in the first round of the SoCon Tournament, as top-seeded UNC were upset.
Prior to the creation of the NCAA Tournament, the end of the SoCon Tournament would have meant the end of the season. However, the 1941 team were awarded a berth in the third edition of the new event.
UNC was placed in the East Regional which was held in Madison, Wisconsin. Carolina was matched up with Pittsburgh in the opening round of the eight-team tournament. Pitt employed the slow down tactics that had helped Duke beat UNC, and they once again worked. Glamack led all scorers with nine points, but Pitt came away with a 26-20 win.
Despite the loss, Carolina wouldn’t leave the tournament without making some history. There was a regional third place game in 1941, and UNC faced off against Dartmouth in that one. North Carolina lost once again, but Glamack put up a tournament record. He scored 31 points in a losing effort, setting the record for most points in a NCAA Tournament game. No player would score more than that in a tournament game for many years after.
It seems crazy to think that with the storied history UNC has that their first NCAA Tournament appearance would end in two losses. It wouldn’t be too long before things started to trend in a winning direction, however.
Powell, Adam. University of North Carolina Basketball. Arcadia Pub., 2005.
Wilner, Barry, and Ken Rappoport. The Big Dance: the Story of the NCAA Basketball Tournament. Taylor Trade Pub., 2012.