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Ranking the UNC Basketball Uniforms

Carolina basketball asked, and so here is your answer.

Marquette v North Carolina Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images

In an effort to break up your timeline from current events, the social media wizards over at Carolina Basketball decided to put out an innocent tweet a while back.

You know, just a good old-fashioned choice of who’s right and who’s wrong.

The replies are worth a read, if only to see how passionate people will get about the uniform they love the most. Everyone is gong to have an opinion of course, but I really wanted to take it one step further. These nine uniforms represent the last six decades of Carolina basketball, and while four of them are one-offs that haven’t been worn since their special event, it’s worth considering just how much UNC has gotten right about their uniform design.

Not to mention how much they’ve gotten wrong.

So, in the spirit of SB Nation’s uniform week, you’ll find one man’s opinion here of Carolina’s attire. For reference, this opinion is coming from a middle-aged Tar Heel alumnus that has been a fan since he was born. Still, even as “an old,” I suspect there will be some fire thrown at this list.

Anyway, let’s get started, worst to best:

9th Place

#7: 2020 version worn for UNC vs Duke 2/8/20

You want more? Ok, the problem with this set is the problem with a lot of special occasion sets that try to do too much. They were trying to honor the 100th anniversary of the rivalry with a look that was a mishmash of what the front of the jerseys would have been back in the early 1900s, but then throw in a few platitudes like the “jersey has heather to represent the pavement along tobacco road.” Either pick to do a straight-up honoring of what the jersey looked like 100 years ago, or come up with something completely different. In the end, the set looked like a glorified practice uniform, and a look that was horrid for the best rivalry in sports. While the game itself was heartbreaking for Carolina fans, it was another classic that’ll be further sullied by these abominations that are best served as kindling.

8th Place

#1: 2012 version won for UNC vs. Maryland 2/29/12

The thing you want in a uniform as a fan is to be unique. You want to be able to know it’s your team simply from one glance of the fabric, but striking a balance by being clean as well. This version isn’t in last because it’s at least clean, and they at least included a token signature argyle pattern on the side. The problem is that the uniform was part of a planned Nike rollout along with other programs, meaning instead of having a unique identity, Carolina was just part of another marketing ploy. It’s tough to overcome the cynicism when it dramatically changes your look and you’re part of a group rollout.

That doesn’t even address the worst part: the “Platinum.” It’s Grey. Seriously, it’s grey. Grey doesn't belong in the Carolina color palette, so let’s just never speak of these things again.

7th Place

#3: 2017 version worn for the Phil Knight Invitational

Same problem as 8th place here. Every team had a special design to bow at the alter of Phil Knight, although God knows how much time and money had been spent on actually designing the looks these teams wear during every other game. This one at least rises up because it looks the most like a Carolina uniform out of the bad ones on this list, using the unique school color and, again, putting the argyle trim on the side. Ultimately, it might have been a cool look if they hadn’t cheapened out with “UNC” and found an innovative way to put “North Carolina” on the chest. Another version that can fade with history.

6th Place

#8: 1999-2000 full season version

I should note there is a huge step up to this spot. If I could put about three or four blank places before this spot, I would.

I was in school during this season, and even in the infancy of the Internet the universal opinion of this uniform was low. The Tar Heels joined other teams that season in replacing their team name with their logo on the front, with Nike using the similar “honoring the classic look” language they used for this year’s abomination. To be fair, when compared to the other looks, this one checks a lot of boxes. Despite joining the crowd by putting a school crest on the chest, the rest of the uniform kept the signature look with the simplicity of the colors, the argyle, and being easy to read. In retrospect, this is not really a bad look at all.

Unfortunately it fails because of the lack of “North Carolina” that is visible on the rest of the sets, and this uniform was so poorly received that when Matt Doherty was hired, one of the things that endeared him early on was that he declared that his team would play with “North Carolina” on its chest. It may have been the high point of his coaching tenure.

T4th Place

#5 & #6 Current home and away version

OK, put down your pitchforks.

I know that when Carolina Basketball put out this tweet, they meant to imply the next two versions are “typical Carolina uniform since 1992,” but let’s be clear, all you have to do is look at photos and realize that this current set is a decent departure from Alexander Julian’s initial look.

Eric Montross

The biggest problem for me with this set is just how little “North Carolina” is on these uniforms. The NCAA has a rule about how big the numbers have to be on the top in order for it to be legal, and because they’ve shrunk the top to make them resemble muscle shirts, they had to severely shrink the “North Carolina” font. You’re going to notice on the ones that end up ahead of this one that detail is important to me.

What I will say about this set versus Julian’s original design: I like how they actually mirror each other. Julian’s original design, which you can see in #8 and on Big Grits above, had the white side panels with blue argyle in both sets. It felt a little weird, clean as it was, and starting with the 2000-2001 set, the home uniforms would have the blue side panel with white argyle, perfectly mirroring the road set that has the white side panel with blue argyle. That set, which Carolina wore unchanged until 2006, would probably rank as number one all time for me. It’s perfect, clean, clear, distinct, with the big “North Carolina” on the chest, and very little “other stuff” on there. Starting with the “horns” in 2006-07, the jersey has had some sort of tweak here or there that took it further away from this clean look. Thus, that’s why the current set falls this far.

That said, this current set is the cleanest look since those ‘00-’06 jerseys and if Nike can find a way to make the name appear a little bit bigger, they could quickly go back up to the top.

3rd Place

#9-2015 version worn for the CBS Sports Classic-12/12/15

Yes, this version is better than the current set.

This is a controversial statement, I’m aware. Paul Lukas over at Uni Watch would call this BFBS or “Black for Black’s Sake.” Black is not in the UNC color palette, there’s no reason to use black for a uniform except to have a black uniform, and usually the release of a black uniform is solely meant for marketing purposes to goose sales.

But man, this is clean.

2015 CBS Sports Classic - UCLA v NC Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

“North Carolina” is big, bold, and easy to read. The Carolina Blue pops against the darkness of the black, making the name, numbers, and argyle stand out. The only white is in the trim and in the argyle itself. It’s simple, and while a marketing stunt, it isn’t overthought at all. It’s literally “Let’s take the current Carolina uniform and make it in black.” It shows it’s completely possible to create a one-off uniform and make it look good. This one joins the “camouflage” uniform worn during the Carrier Classic as examples of how to tweak one detail and make a great look for a special occasion. In the end, though, it is a color that’s not meant for the Tar Heels, and thus it can’t be in the top spot.

2nd Place

#4 Charlie Scott throwback-Last worn vs NC State 2/25/20

If I’m going to hold to the rules of the uniforms as they are now, I can’t judge this one by what it looked like in the late 60’s, but the version that was worn on the court this year. Even in this case, though, this version is near perfection. It’s clean, with nothing but the Carolina Blue and white, the big “North Carolina” across the chest, the easy to read numbers, and the subtle triangle design on the bottom of the shorts. It feels very 60’s, and there’s a lot to be said for just how simple uniforms were and had to be.

This set is so clean that if Carolina made a decision to go to this set full time, just using the established font that is now standard across all team uniforms, I would not complain. When you minimize the design, you emphasize the school and emphasize how unique this color set is across college basketball. The biggest quibble I have with this is the arched lettering, which is true to how they looked, but instead of taking the time to arch the the letters, each letter is just turned at an angle to form the circle. It’s a subtle difference, but it’s also a detail that make a big difference between our top two.

1st Place

#2-70’s/80’s era throwbacks-various times, including 2/20/14

Again, this is judging the throwback and not the actual uniform, but in this case there isn’t really any difference. How can you argue with this iconic look that still looks clean when it’s on the floor? It’s so crisp with the white and the heavy Carolina Blue trim. The numbers and name are easy to read, and on this one you have two great subtle details.

First, the name is arched but instead of just “turning” the letters, it looks as if the letters were designed to be arched. Basically, you take a piece of cloth and carve out the whole name to make it look rounded and appear in a perfect arch. That detail is so striking and important that it’s survived every other iteration of uniform, including the look today.

Second, the foot on the side panel of the shorts. Many would say it’s the only acceptable black to appear on a Carolina uniform, and it’s tough to argue that simple foot on the panel makes you instantly recognize, even from the side, that you are looking at the North Carolina Tar Heels. It’s easy to get a side design wrong, but the overall look is just perfect.

This look is slightly different than what fans remember from the 70’s and 80’s, and in a way it’s better. Folks who watched the replay of the ‘82 title game would quickly realize that the blue could quickly get a little too dark and start to run away from the Carolina Blue we are all familiar with. Today, it’s a lot easier to make sure that a color is the same pantone no matter what fabric you’re using.

It’s tough to beat a classic. Again, if Carolina were regularly wearing a set closer to the original Julian design that matched the “North Carolina” size on the chest with this, it would be a tough fight for number one between those two. Since they seem intent on making the font as small as possible, however, this throwback easily takes the top spot.

So, to answer the original question, I would keep 2, 4, and 9. If you search your heart, I think you’ll agree considering what they’ve done to this set over the past decade and a half.