Can North Carolina make the NCAA Tournament? Breaking down Tar Heels’ March Madness odds for 2021

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There is an old saying among those who follow North Carolina basketball, so popular that they put it on T-shirts: If God is not a Tar Heel, why’s the sky Carolina Blue?

Which leads to this question in light of the 2020-21 season: If God is a Tar Heel, why is Carolina 15-9?

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The team that has earned three NCAA championships since 2005 has encountered uncommon difficulty over the past two seasons, but at least this year’s edition is progressing toward a back-of-the-field NCAA berth. Last year’s team would have missed the NCAAs had the tournament not been canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Can North Carolina make the NCAA Tournament?

The more germane question might be: Can North Carolina not make the tournament? The Tar Heels are a No. 10 seed in the projected Field of 68 compiled by Ryan Fagan of Sporting News. As his bracket is constructed, that puts at least seven at-large teams behind the Tar Heels. It’s hard to fall behind that many teams in such a short time — especially when most of those teams are having an even tougher time winning games than the Heels.

To take the affirmative viewpoint, though, the Heels would be pretty close to locking up a bid if they were able to defeat Duke in their season-ending rivalry game at 6 p.m. Saturday on ESPN.

That would put the Heels at 16-9 overall with a 9-8 record against Quads 1 and 2 combined. Such bubble teams as Boise State, Xavier, Colorado State and Memphis all have fewer victories in that category.

North Carolina and the ACC Tournament

The Tar Heels enter the weekend tied for sixth place in the ACC with a 9-6 league record, but they lose the tiebreaker, as things stand now, with Clemson for the No. 6 seed in the ACC Tournament. That tiebreaker involved Clemson’s head-to-head victory over the Heels, so that cannot change if they are still tied after the final regular-season games.

However, the Tar Heels could pull ahead by defeating the Blue Devils while Clemson loses its season-ender to a .500 Pitt team.

There still are scenarios in which Carolina could wind up as the No. 4 seed or No. 5 seed, although the Heels would require some significant upsets. The most likely scenario appears to be a No. 6 seed, with favorites Georgia Tech, Virginia and Clemson winning their final games.

At No. 6, the Heels would play a first-round game against the winner between the No. 11 and No. 14 teams, currently Boston College and Notre Dame. With a win would come a quarterfinal game against the No. 3 seed, currently Virginia Tech, whose COVID-19 pause began after a Feb. 27 win over Wake Forest and wiped out games this week against Louisville and N.C. State.

North Carolina’s remaining schedule  

The greatest rivalry in American sports — North Carolina vs. Duke — is not enjoying one of its typically glamorous seasons. In some ways, though, the stakes are higher than ever.

North Carolina has not been a double-digit seed in the NCAA Tournament, ever. Its lowest seeds since the NCAA began using that device in 1979 were No. 8 seeds in 1990 (under Dean Smith, the Heels reached the Sweet 16), 2000 (under Bill Guthridge, they made it to the Final Four) and 2013 (under Roy Williams, they advanced one round).

Now, in the game that traditionally ends the regular season for both teams, the Tar Heels and Blue Devils will play at 6 p.m. Saturday on ESPN.

No doubt the network will make it feel like an occasion.

North Carolina’s strength of victory 

North Carolina’s biggest problem in stating an at-large case is a 2-8 record against Quad 1 opposition. When they’ve played the best teams on their schedule — or when they’ve faced the toughest challenges — they’ve mostly lost.

The exceptions to that were a home win over NET No. 13 Florida State and the first meeting with the Blue Devils, at Cameron Indoor Stadium in early February.

They have a 3-6 record against teams in the Sporting News projected NCAA field.

North Carolina’s weak spots

Facing a hole in the schedule because of an opponent’s COVID pause, Williams arranged a non-league visit from Marquette, a talented team that had fallen off in the Big East race with six losses in a seven-game stretch. It figured to be an opportunity to add a solid victory — Marquette is No. 90 in the NET rankings — and to stay sharp with more competition.

It didn’t work out that way. Marquette controlled the game and left Chapel Hill with a memorable 83-70 victory.

That’s North Carolina’s only Quad 3 loss, but one in that category is a lot for an NCAA Tournament aspirant.

Road losses to N.C. State and Syracuse are the only other defeats against teams not in the SN bracket projection, and those qualify as Quad 1 losses.

North Carolina’s KenPom, RPI, SOS and quadrants

— KenPom: Carolina is No. 32 in the latest KenPom rankings.

— RPI: Carolina ranks No. 38 in the latest RPI standings.

— Strength of schedule: Carolina is No. 28 in the latest SOS rankings and 35 in Strength of Record.

— Quadrants: Carolina is 2-8 in Quadrant 1 games, 8-8 against Quads 1 and 2 combined. The Heels have one loss in Quad 3.

How North Carolina makes March Madness

The Tar Heels really don’t have that much work ahead in the purest sense. Win a home game against a team that’s a single game over .500? Win on a neutral court against a team with a losing record? That’s all North Carolina needs to assure itself of a bid.

It gets much harder with some minor changes to the language. The Tar Heels must prevail against their fiercest rivals to earn a season sweep, and they must do it against a team even more desperately in need of success to remain in the NCAA hunt. Then they must go into the ACC Tournament and most likely defeat an opponent that already ruined the postseason aspirations of Pitt and damaged Duke’s NCAA Tournament case.

It’s maybe not so easy after all, but there are a lot of Division I programs — including some whose tradition ranks with the grandest in the game — who would eagerly accept the opportunity to trade places with the Heels.

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