With 31 ACC regular season titles, 18 ACC Tournament titles and six NCAA championships, the North Carolina men's basketball team has given students plenty to root for throughout the years.
But despite this long run of success, for the seniors in the Class of 2023, it looked like they might not experience any similar triumphs during their time in Chapel Hill.
As first-years, a Cole Anthony-led UNC team battled through injuries in the 2019-20. The Tar Heels then finished at the bottom of the regular season conference standings and lost in the second round of the ACC Tournament.
The next year, despite the team's high potential, UNC fell in the first round of the NCAA Tournament and longtime head coach Roy Williams unexpectedly retired two weeks later.
Then, in head coach Hubert Davis’ first year at the helm last season, it looked like the Tar Heels might miss the tournament completely. In mid-February, the team lost to a struggling Pittsburgh team to fall to 18-8 on the season.
The team suddenly gained momentum down the stretch. The Tar Heels beat Duke in head coach Mike Krzyzewski's final home game and then went on a Cinderella run in the NCAA Tournament, advancing all the way to the championship game that included another victory over the Blue Devils in the Final Four. Then after weeks of contemplating their career options, all four eligible starters elected to return for the upcoming season.
Now, the Class of 2023 will get its first taste of what it’s like for the basketball team to have a target on its back every game, with North Carolina ranked as the top team in the country entering the season.
“In my first year I was like, 'Alright, I’m not going to see us go past the Sweet 16 in all my four years here,'” senior Shivan Shah said. “Last year was a complete surprise. Going into this year, I’m extremely excited but I’m a little worried because being number one, you have the highest possible expectations. So there’s a bigger possibility of being let down.”
On the opposite side of the spectrum, the Class of 2026 comes in with a No. 1 team to root for — something that no other four-year student at North Carolina can say.
For the first-years that grew up watching UNC basketball, it provides an opportunity for them to witness history unfold in front of their eyes.
“Both my parents went to UNC, so I grew up with the TV always playing Carolina basketball,” first-year Anne Dancausse said. “I remember how exciting it was six years ago when we had an amazing team.”
Both first-years and seniors are looking to that team from six years ago for inspiration on what they hope might happen this year.
After losing on a buzzer-beater to Villanova in the 2016 NCAA National Championship, North Carolina rebounded to win the national title the next season with a victory over Gonzaga, becoming the fourth team to lose the championship and win the following year, joining the 1982 Tar Heels, the 1991 Duke Blue Devils and 1998 Kentucky Wildcats.
“Having seen UNC lose that national championship in 2016 and then go back and win it, I hope we can mirror those two seasons,” senior Riley Lachance said. “I’m anticipating that we can run it back and win a national championship. But I’m overall just really looking forward to the season.”
Part of the student experience of basketball is getting seats at the front of the student section in the Dean E. Smith Center. With the excitement surrounding this year’s team, Shah knows it’s going to be the hardest it’s ever been to get front-row seats.
“I’m excited for the ride,” Shah said. “I’m looking forward to being in the front row even though the line’s going to be way longer this year.”
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