March Madness without an NC team? It could happen

The state’s best are on the bubble for the NCAA Tournament

LeVelle Moton and the NC Central Eagles have played only four games this season and would need to win the MEAC Tournament to earn an NCAA Tournament bid for the fifth time during the coach’s tenure in Durham. (Gerry Broome / AP Photo)

On Tuesday night, ACC fans were treated to an experience they haven’t seen in nearly five years. When Duke took the floor for its game at Pitt, the Blue Devils played their first game as an unranked team since 2016, snapping a 91-poll streak in the top 25. 

The Blue Devils were in the “others receiving votes” group, with a total of 42 poll points, and they didn’t have any local company. No other team from the state of North Carolina received a single vote in the poll. 

It was the first time since December 1982 that archrivals Duke and North Carolina were both absent from the weekly poll.  However, NC State, on its way to the national championship the next March, was ranked No. 15 and No. 17 in the two polls the Tar Heels and Blue Devils missed. So we need to return to the Way Back Machine to keep looking.

Dec. 28, 1970, is the last time that no team from North Carolina was in the AP poll, which, back then, was a Top 20, not 25. 

A little less than three months after that poll, March Madness tipped off without a team from North Carolina. Two years later, the 1973 NCAA Tournament also shut out the state. 

Could it happen again? While it still appears to be a long shot at this point, there’s a distinct possibility that the 2021 NCAA Tournament may be the first in 47 years without a team from North Carolina. 

The latest bracketology projections look grim. ESPN has three teams from the state in the 2021 field of 68, none seeded higher than 11th and only one avoiding the First Four play-in round. has one team playing in for a 16 seed. 

With less than two months until Selection Sunday, here’s a look at the state’s Division I teams and the likelihood that they’ll keep North Carolina’s NCAA streak alive. 

Losing records: Three teams entered Tuesday have losing records on the season and will need to win their conference tournaments to make the Big Dance. The group includes Wake Forest (3-5, 0-5 and last in the ACC), High Point (3-6, 1-3 and seventh in the Big South) and Gardner-Webb (3-8, 2-4 and eighth in the Big South)

One-bid conferences: Another eight teams also need to win their conference tournaments because the leagues they play in are unlikely to get multiple bids. Only one of them, at the moment, appears to be a favorite to win their tournament: NC A&T, who is 2-0 in the MEAC despite a 5-9 overall record. A&T is projected as a 16-seed bound for the play-in game by both CBS and ESPN. 

The rest of the one-bid Charlies are UNC Asheville (7-6, 6-2 and third in the Big South, a conference topped by undefeated Winthrop), Campbell (9-7, 4-4 and fifth in the Big South), UNC Wilmington (6-4, 0-1 and ninth in CAA), Elon (3-3, 0-2 and last in the CAA), NC Central (1-2, 0-0 and third in the MEAC South, but always a tough conference tournament out under coach LeVelle Moton), UNC Greensboro (9-5, 4-2 and fourth in the Southern) and Western Carolina (7-5, 0-3 and last in the Southern).

That leaves seven North Carolina teams with at least some hope of an at-large bid, in ascending order of likelihood. 

East Carolina (7-3, 1-3 and eighth in the AAC): The Pirates are near the bottom of the league standings, but it’s early enough that a hot streak could move them up. ECU doesn’t have any impressive nonconference wins on its resume and are favored in just two of its remaining 16 games, according to the Torvik projections.  

Appalachian State (10-5, 4-2 and tied for first in the Sun Belt): The Sun Belt has gotten an at-large bid twice since 2008, and App is tied with Georgia State for first in the Sun Belt East. The Mountaineers would need to at least win the divisional title to have hope of getting considered. 

Charlotte (6-6, 2-2 and third in Conference USA): The 49ers have a win at Davidson but little else going in their favor. They’ll need to get hot over the next two months.  

Davidson (8-5, 4-2 and fifth in the A-10): The Wildcats would be in better shape if they completed an upset of Texas, but they lost by two. A road win at Rhode Island is their best win so far, although they’ll have plenty of opportunities to add to their resume down the stretch. 

NC State (6-4, 2-3 and tenth in the ACC): A three-game losing streak has put the Wolfpack on the wrong side of the bubble, but State has six Quadrant I and six Quadrant II games left, so its fate is in its hands.  

North Carolina (8-5, 3-3 and ninth in the ACC): The Heels are in a First Four game as a No. 11 seed, according to ESPN. With six freshmen in the rotation, Carolina should continue to improve as the year goes on.

Duke (5-3, 3-1 and fourth in the ACC): The Blue Devils should also continue to improve as their six freshmen gain experience. They are projected for an 11th seed by ESPN. Duke will need to win some road games to earn a bid.