Carolina has played 160 games in the NCAA tournament. The Tar Heels have appeared in the NCAA Tournament Championship Game 11 times, and have been in a record 20 NCAA Tournament Final Fours. The Tar Heels have made it into the NCAA tournament 50 times (second-most all-time), and have amassed 123 victories (second most all-time). North Carolina also won the National Invitation Tournament in 1971, and appeared in two NIT Finals with six appearances in the NIT Tournament. Additionally, the team has been the number one seed in the NCAA Tournament 17 times, the latest being in 2019 (most #1 seeds all-time).
The 2011–2012 Tar Heels finished the regular season with a final record of 32-6, including a 14–2 record in ACC regular season play which allowed the team to win the conference regular season championship outright. The team fell to Florida State in the championship game of the 2012 ACC Men's Basketball Tournament. The team was a #1 seed in the Midwest Regional of the 2012 NCAA Men's Division I Basketball Tournament; the team reached the Elite Eight and was defeated by Kansas 80-67. This defeat was the second time UNC lost to Kansas in the NCAA Tournament with Roy Williams as UNC head coach. He previously coached Kansas from 1988 to 2003. The loss to Kansas was also UNC's second straight loss in the Elite Eight, after losing to Kentucky the year before. Kansas later fell to Kentucky 67-59 in the National Championship Game. Before the Kansas game, the Tar Heels won their previous three games in the NCAA Tournament by an average of 13.7 points. In the second-round game versus Creighton, starting UNC point guard Kendall Marshall broke his right wrist with 10:56 remaining in the second half with UNC leading 66-50. Marshall continued to play by dribbling primarily with his left hand, including getting fouled on a drive to the basket with 7:09 left in the second half. He left the game against Creighton with two minutes left with UNC leading 85-69. Williams announced Kendall Marshall's injury at the Creighton post-game press conference. Kendall Marshall did not play in UNC's two following games in the NCAA Tournament, a 73-65 overtime win over Ohio in the Sweet 16 and the aforementioned 67-80 loss to Kansas in the Elite Eight.
Despite the turnaround from the year before and the NIT appearance, at the end of the season Matt Doherty was replaced as head coach by Roy Williams. Williams had served as an assistant to Smith for 11 years before leaving to spend the first 15 years of his Hall of Fame head coaching career leading Kansas to 9 conference regular season championships and four Final Fours before Smith convinced him to return home. It was hoped that Williams would restore a measure of stability to the program. Williams was UNC's third coach in six years. The two previous to Guthridge (McGuire and Smith) had covered a 45-year period.
The 2010–2011 Tar Heels, with the addition of Harrison Barnes, Kendall Marshall, and Reggie Bullock, eighth in the preseason polls, struggled out the gates, starting with a 2-2 record, the worst start since the 2001–02 season. After losses to Illinois and Texas, the Tar Heels fell out of the rankings. The losses of senior Will Graves, to dismissal, and Larry Drew II, to transfer and also the unexpected off-season transfers of David and Travis Wear did not help matters. However, the Tar Heels improved greatly during the conference season, finishing first in the ACC regular season with a 14-2 record. Williams was named Conference Coach of the Year for his efforts of getting his team to work through the adversity to finish strong in the regular season. Also during the season, the term Tar Heel Blue Steel was coined, referencing the Tar Heel men's basketball walk-ons. The term was started by one of the players, Stewart Cooper, in hopes that it would be a replacement for "walk-ons" and other less catchy names and soon enough Roy Williams caught on, as well as the rest of the Tar Heel Nation. North Carolina lost to Duke in the ACC Tournament Finals and made a significant run in the NCAA Tournament until they were eliminated in the Elite Eight by Kentucky, finishing with a 29-8 record.