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UNC Basketball: History

If the regular season ended today, how would the postseason look?

NCAA Basketball: Louisville at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

The Tar Heel men’s basketball team, in Coach Davis’ first year at the helm, has won 20 games with three games to spare in the regular season. Before settling in to try and create coherent points out of the noise in my head, I went back and looked at the records at the end of the regular season for each season stretching back to the 2003-2004 season, when Coach Williams came home. Partially out of idle curiosity, to see if there was any kind of pattern that could be identified, but also partially as an exercise in forecasting the future, to see if years past could lend any clarity to the cruelly shrouded future.

If the regular season ended today, the Heels’ 20-8 record would be better than four seasons under Coach Williams: the 18-9 regular season in the first season after the departure of Coach Doherty; a disappointing ‘09-’10 season that saw the Tar Heels finish the regular season with a record of 16-15 en route to a loss in the NIT championship game; and the two seasons directly preceding the surprise retirement of Coach Williams, a 13-18 regular season in ‘19-’20 and the 16-9 regular season last year.

In only one of the above seasons (technically true!) did the Heels fail to merit an invite to the NCAA Tournament. 2020 was likely in jeopardy, certainly, but the world will never know since there was no tournament. As no Selection Sunday happened in 2020, the Heels haven’t missed an invite to the Big Dance since 2010.

There are four seasons that are possible matches for this year’s regular season record: a 22-9 mark in both the ‘12-’13 and ‘17-’18 seasons, a best-case 23-8 record in ‘13-’14, and a more pessimistic 21-10 regular season total in ‘14-’15. In each of these seasons, Carolina fans got to root for the Tar Heels in the NCAA Tournament; in fact, upon a cursory review, I don’t believe the Heels have won 20 games in the regular season and missed March Madness since 1974, when they carried a 20-4 regular season into the NIT (perhaps by choice—this was right before the NCAA Tournament was moved to primetime and the gap began to widen between the two postseason tournaments).

With upcoming contests against NC State, Syracuse, and Duke, it’s feasible that the regular season record could end up on either end of the above spectrum. I fully expect at least one of the remaining games to be a Tar Heel win, which would put this year’s regular season record even with that of the ‘14-’15 team that got to the Sweet Sixteen as a 4 seed with a freshman class that would grow into national champs in a few more seasons.

A respectable 2-1 record over the next three games for this year’s Heels would stack them up nicely with the twin regular season records of both ‘12-’13 and ‘17-’18; 8 and 2 seeds respectively. The ‘12-’13 Carolina team, an 8 seed, beat a 9th-seeded Villanova team before falling to the 3 seed in their region. The ‘17-’18 earned a 2 seed and a first-round win over Lipscomb before a bit of a letdown at the hands of Texas A&M in the second round. Both teams that finished with a 22-9 record in the regular season peaked at nearly the right time, each falling just one game short of winning the ACC Tournament.

A 3-0 clean slate to end this season would net the Heels a regular season record of 23-8, a ringer for the ‘13-’14 season that ended with a cup of coffee in the NCAA Tournament as a 6 seed, finishing with a second round loss to Iowa State.

If the regular season ended today, the Heels would still be in good shape to make the Big Dance. There’s been a lot of talk about the Tar Heels being a bubble team, and while that’s fair, there’s a whole lot of history to buck if the committee passes over the Heels after a regular season in which they won (at least) 20 games. As with nearly every season, though, the ACC Tournament remains a considerable factor in eventual seeding. Hang around a while in New York, and the seeding can only improve.

Before we get there, though, the Heels have three more opportunities to improve on an already-good first season under Coach Davis, including two games that are considered must-win in my book if for no other reason than to not hear the yapping from local coworkers.

March is coming. Go Heels.