When Was the Last Time UNC Basketball Missed out on March Madness?

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North Carolina is one of college basketball's powerhouse programs, but coach Roy Williams and the Tarheels might miss March Madness in 2020.

The University of North Carolina Tar Heels are such a staple in the world of men’s college basketball that their inclusion in March Madness is usually a foregone conclusion. After struggling to recover from an injury to team leader Cole Anthony, however, the team could find itself on the outside looking in once the season is complete. It’s rare that UNC basketball misses out on March Madness, and an especially rare one under the guidance of Roy Williams.

With the unthinkable becoming increasingly inevitable, people are wondering when the last time the Tar Heels didn’t make it into the NCAA Tournament. 

The start of a promising season for UNC basketball

Things were looking good for Williams, Anthony, and company at the start of the season. Despite losing Cameron Johnson, Coby White, and Nassir Little to the NBA, Anthony was a promising addition to the program whom many believed to be among the best incoming freshmen in the nation. Combine that with Williams’ legendary coaching, and things were going to be just fine.

Anthony was already leading the team with his tremendous play during the early stretch, averaging 19 points, three assists, and six rebounds through these first nine games and showing that he could get wins in the process. Unfortunately for both him and the rest of the team, that initial success was short-lived.

The Tar Heels’ season goes awry

North Carolina is a powerhouse program, but coach Roy Williams and his UNC men's basketball team might miss March Madness in 2020.
Cole Anthony (left) and Roy Williams. | Grant Halverson/Getty Images

After winning six of their first seven games, the typical UNC basketball success appeared to be in the cards for the team. After Anthony tore his meniscus in December, however, the team needed to work overtime to recover from the setback. The Tar Heels responded by going four and nine over their next thirteen games, including two losses in Anthony’s return to the court. 

With a 3-8 record against the ACC, UNC will have to do the unthinkable and likely win the conference tournament to make it into March Madness. Otherwise, the team could become only the second under Roy Williams to miss the NCAA Tournament entirely. 

Which was the last UNC basketball team to miss the tournament?

The last time UNC basketball struggled like this was a decade ago when the team went 20-17 on the season and 5-11 against the ACC. The season, which boasted a winning record despite missing March Madness, was a fascinating one. Six players eventually found themselves on NBA rosters, including brothers Travis and David Wear, Tyler Zeller, John Henson, Larry Drew, and most notably, Ed Davis. 

Davis missed a healthy chunk of the season with an injury, but the deep roster kept the team afloat. It was the Tar Heels’ lack of wins in the conference that eventually did them in, however. After failing to win the conference tournament, the team had to watch March Madness from home. 

Before that, the team hadn’t missed out on the NCAA Tournament since 2002 and 2003, the two years leading up to Roy Williams’ tenure with the team. The team had to go back to the 1970s to find a year they missed the tournament before that. As one of the most storied schools in NCAA basketball, the Tar Heels’ constant flow of NBA talent and legendary coaching makes seasons like this rare. Can they sneak in at the end?

Will the Tar Heels turn it around? 

The Tar Heels hopes will have to live and die by the conference tournament, but with the team’s struggles against the ACC and with Cole Anthony hobbled, a turnaround appears unlikely. The team is going to have to regroup, pray for health, and prepare for next year if they don’t make it into the tournament. However, with a coach like Williams and a new class of talent coming in, the team has a great chance to start another run of tournaments when they go into the next season.