If North Carolina doesn't start winning soon, opposing fans will stop chanting, "NIT! NIT!" and will start taunting the Tar Heels about scrambling for a bid to the even lower profile College Basketball Invitational.
With NCAA Tournament chances remote at this point, the Tar Heels (14-12, 3-8 ACC) could at best be hoping for an at-large bid to the National Invitation Tournament, which features the top 32 teams that don't make it to the premier postseason event. But even a berth there isn't certain if they can't find a way to pull out at least two of their last five games - beginning noon Saturday at Boston College (12-13, 3-8).
"It means a great deal to me," coach Roy Williams said Friday about the possibility of playing in the postseason - wherever that may be. "And I think it could be important to us. But we've got to play our way into that."
Under NIT rules, teams don't have to post a .500 record to receive an invitation. But since the NCAA revamped the selection process for the 2006 NIT, every team that has competed in it has had an even record or better.
C.M. Newton, chairman of the NIT selection committee, says the most important thing is to put together the strongest field of teams possible - regardless of name recognition or how many fans a specific might draw.
"Who have they played? How are they playing late in the year? I know the NCAA committee talks about the total body of work, and we do too ... but I want a team that's playing well at the end," Newton said. "... We use RPI, we use Sagarin, we use all of the same things that the [NCAA] basketball committee uses to make sure we have the strongest field possible."
Using those criteria, the Tar Heels are on the NIT bubble right now. As of last Sunday - even before losing by 17 points at Georgia Tech Tuesday - their RPI was rated No. 81 by collegerpi.com. UNC has won only two of its last 10 games.
And they are not the only "name" team that the NIT selection committee may get to choose from.
"Any time you can get a team of North Carolina's reputation and caliber, it obviously helps the tournament," Newton said. "But you know, we're sitting here this year - and you've got a bunch of former NCAA championship teams that are, quote, 'bubble' teams. You've got UCLA that's very much a bubble team for the NIT, you've got Connecticut that's a former champion, you've got Indiana that's a former champion - we've got a bunch of so-called basketball power name teams that may be on our radar."
North Carolina wouldn't be the first team to win the NCAA title one year and play in the NIT the next. Florida played in the NIT in 2008, after winning back-to-back national titles. Defending national champion Louisville turned down an NIT bid when it finished 18-14 in 1986-87. N.C. State also was relegated to the NIT the year after it won the national title in 1983, but that was when the NCAA field included only 48 teams.
Under NIT selection rules, squads that won their regular-season conference championship but didn't make it to the NCAA Tournament because they lost in their league tournament, receive automatic invitations. Then an eight-member selection committee, made up of retired coaches, selects and seeds the rest of the field.
Sixteen teams host first-round NIT games, and teams must win three times to advance to the semifinals in New York.
Mathematically, the Tar Heels aren't out of the race for an NCAA Tournament bid. They could, theoretically, win the ACC Tournament - although they would have to win four games in four days, something that has never been done in the league tournament. Or they could, hypothetically, win at least four of their last five regular-season games, which would represent a dramatic revival after winning only three of its first 11 ACC games.
Williams, who has led 20 straight teams to the NCAA Tournament, said his Tar Heels aren't giving up.
"I'm still confident we can go on a run and be in the big tournament," he said. "It looks a lot more cloudy from what everybody says and looking at it realistically, and I can understand that."
If it doesn't happen, though, and the Tar Heels also fail to make the NIT, the College Basketball Invitational (CBI) could be a third alternative. The 16-team tournament invites teams that didn't make the other two postseason events. But it has only been in existence for two years, and it's questionable as to whether UNC would accept an invitation - even if opposing fans start bellowing a reminder.