After most schools decided to disband their J.V. squads, North Carolina's athletic department opted to keep the team so that non-scholarship students were given the chance to play basketball for UNC. North Carolina also uses their J.V. team as a way for varsity assistant coaches to gain experience as head coaches, such as the current coach, Hubert Davis. Roy Williams was a J.V. coach for eight years before he was hired at Kansas.
Dean Smith was widely known for his idea of "The Carolina Way," in which he challenged his players to, “Play hard, play smart, play together.” “The Carolina Way” was an idea of excellence in the classroom, as well as on the court. In Coach Smith's book, The Carolina Way, former player Scott Williams said, regarding Dean Smith, “Winning was very important at Carolina, and there was much pressure to win, but Coach cared more about our getting a sound education and turning into good citizens than he did about winning.“  "The Carolina Way" was evident in many practices the players would implement, including pointing to the player who assisted in a basket, giving him credit as an act of selflessness. This "Thank the Passer" practice is used throughout basketball today.
Guthridge retired in 2000 and North Carolina turned to Matt Doherty, the head coach at Notre Dame and a player on the 1982 championship team, to lead the Tar Heels. Doherty had little success while at North Carolina. In his first season, the Heels were ranked #1 in the polls in the middle of the Atlantic Coast Conference schedule and finished with a 26–7 record. The bottom fell out the following year, as the Tar Heels finished the season with a record of 8–20, the worst season in school history. They missed postseason play entirely for the first time since the 1965–66 season (including a record 27 straight NCAA Tournament appearances) and finished with a losing record for the first time since 1962 (Dean Smith's first year as coach). They also finished 4–12 in the ACC—only the program's second losing ACC record ever. The 12 losses were six more than the Tar Heels had ever suffered in a single season of ACC play, and placed them in a tie for 7th place—the program's first finish below fourth place ever. The season also saw the end of UNC's run of 31 straight 20-win seasons and 35 straight seasons of finishing third or higher in the ACC.
The team played in the Bynum Gymnasium, a venue known for its unusual running track suspended above the court. Play moved to the Tin Can during the 1924 season, until the team's relocation to the Woollen Gymnasium in 1938. Rudimentarily built of steel, attempts to heat the Tin Can during early season at first failed, with ice often forming inside:
In 1953, North Carolina split from the Southern Conference and became a founding member of the Atlantic Coast Conference. The Tar Heels won their first NCAA Championship in 1957 under fifth year head coach Frank McGuire, who led an undefeated 32-0 squad dominated by Lennie Rosenbluth and several other transplants from the New York City area to a 54-53 triple overtime victory over Wilt Chamberlain's Kansas Jayhawks. C.D. Chesley, a Washington, D.C. television producer, piped the 1957 championship game in Kansas City to a hastily created network of five stations across North Carolina—the ancestor to the current syndicated ACC football and basketball package from Raycom Sports—which helped prove pivotal in basketball becoming a craze in the state. The title game was the only triple overtime final game in championship history, which followed a triple overtime North Carolina defeat of Michigan State 74-70 the previous night.
Smith unexpectedly retired before the start of practice for the 1997–98 season. He was succeeded by Bill Guthridge, who had been an assistant coach at the school for 30 years, the last 25 as Smith's top assistant. During Guthridge's three seasons as head coach he posted an 80–28 record, making him tied for the then-NCAA record for most wins by a coach after three seasons. The Tar Heels reached the NCAA Final Four twice, in the 1998 tournament and again in the 2000 tournament. North Carolina reached the Final Four in 2000 as an 8-seed, their lowest seeding in a Final Four appearance.
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Smith's early teams were not nearly as successful as McGuire's had been. His first team went only 8–9 as it turned out, the last losing season UNC would suffer for 41 years. His first five teams never won more than 16 games. This grated on a fan base used to winning; in 1965 some of them even hanged him in effigy. However, Smith would go on to take the Tar Heels to a reign of championships and national dominance. When he retired in 1997, Smith's 879 wins were the most ever for any NCAA Division I men's basketball coach, and his 77.61% winning percentage ninth best. During his tenure, North Carolina won or shared 17 ACC regular season titles and won 13 ACC Tournaments. They went to the NCAA tournament 27 times–including 23 in a row from 1975 to 1997–appeared in 11 Final Fours, and won NCAA national tournament titles in 1982 and 1993. They also won the NIT in 1971. The 1982 National Championship team was led by James Worthy, Sam Perkins, and a young Michael Jordan. The 1993 National Championship team starred Donald Williams, George Lynch and Eric Montross. While at North Carolina, Smith helped promote desegregation by recruiting the University's first African American scholarship basketball player Charlie Scott.
North Carolina is still alive in the recruitment for five-star shooting guard Bryce Thompson, one of the top uncommitted recruits in the 2020 class. The Tulsa, Oklahoma native cut his list down to seven teams in August. On Sunday, Thompson cut his list one more time as he trimmed it down to four finalists: UNC, Kansas, Oklahoma State, and Oklahoma. (Keeping It Heel)