On Monday night in Tallahassee, North Carolina secured another victory in a game it couldn’t afford to lose.
A 77-66 win over Florida State moved the Tar Heels one step closer to an NCAA tournament bid that looked almost out of reach a week ago.
With their backs firmly against the wall, they have now strung together three straight wins to move right back into the thick of the race for a March Madness bid.
A home win on Saturday against Virginia — then ranked No. 6 in the country — was a major step forward in what has been a hugely disappointing season for Hubert Davis’ squad. Despite entering the year as the preseason No. 1, UNC has struggled mightily, putting together a 19-11 overall record so far. The victory over the Cavaliers was the team’s first against a Quadrant 1 opponent this season in nine attempts.
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There’s still plenty of work left to be done. A regular season finale matchup against Duke looms on Saturday, and a loss in that game would undo a lot of the work that the Tar Heels have done to give themselves a shot at this stage.
This year does have an eerily similar feeling to last year, when a Carolina team on the tournament bubble got hot at just the right time and nearly pulled off an improbable run to the title. But before they can worry about making it back to college basketball’s biggest game, the Heels first have to punch their ticket to the dance.
Here’s a look at how they can do that as the regular season nears its conclusion:
North Carolina and the ACC Tournament
As usual, the ACC Tournament looks like it will be highly competitive. UNC is currently projected as an 8 seed, meaning it will get a bye into the second round before facing the prospect of three games in three days to make it to the conference championship.
The good news is, like last year, the Heels appear to be gathering some momentum at the right time. If they can upset at least one team ranked higher than them in the conference tournament, it would be a huge boost to their resume.
On the flip side, a loss to Duke this Saturday coupled with an early exit from the ACC tournament could spell disaster for their March Madness hopes.
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North Carolina’s strength of victory
UNC is a shocking 1-8 in Quadrant 1 games this season. Simply put, that is not the kind of record that usually gets you a spot in the NCAA tournament field.
Outside of the recent win against Virginia, the team’s best win might legitimately be against College of Charleston all the way back in November. I will repeat: the College of Charleston Cougars, leaders of the Colonial Athletic Association, might just be the second-toughest team UNC has beaten this season. You could make the argument a home win against NC State looks slightly better on the resume, but with the Wolfpack fresh off a blowout loss to Clemson, that may not remain the case for long.
Wins over Ohio State, Michigan and Clemson are also respectable Quadrant 2 victories, but it seems likely the Tar Heels will need to pick up at least one more Quad 1 win — whether that be against Duke this Saturday or in the ACC Tournament — to truly lock up a spot in the dance.
North Carolina’s weak spots
While UNC doesn’t have many signature wins on its resume this season, it also doesn’t have too many terrible losses. On paper, the team’s worst loss was probably a 92-85 defeat to Wake Forest in early February that wasn’t as close as the score suggests. In fairness, that also came just three days after a crushing defeat to Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Other tough losses include a brutal 65-64 home defeat against Pitt and an 80-72 home defeat to Miami.
On the (slightly) brighter side, the team is a perfect 11-0 in Quadrant 3 and Quadrant 4 games. Even if there aren’t many great wins on the Tar Heels’ resume, there aren’t any hugely embarrassing losses, either.
North Carolina’s KenPom, RPI, SOS and quadrants
— KenPom: North Carolina is No. 43 in the latest KenPom rankings.
— RPI: North Carolina ranks No. 28 in the latest RPI standings.
— Strength of schedule: North Carolina is No. 38 in the latest SOS rankings.
— Quadrants: North Carolina is 1-9 in Quadrant 1 games and 7-12 against Quads 1 and 2 combined. The Tar Heels have no losses in Quad 3 or Quad 4 matchups.
Will North Carolina make the NCAA Tournament?
Hubert Davis’ squad is firmly on the bubble at the moment. Unless the team gets another big win in the regular season finale against Duke or makes a run/win in the ACC Tournament to secure an automatic bid, it seems likely the Tar Heels could be one of the first four teams out when the field is named.
If that happens, it would be the first time in history a preseason No. 1 team has missed the tournament completely. It’s safe to say Armando Bacot, Caleb Love, R.J. Davis and Leaky Black would rather not make that unfortunate history, especially after their historic run to the national title game less than one year ago.