Never before has the NCAA tournament selection committee awarded a No. 1 seed to a team with more than seven losses.
North Carolina has a chance to be the first.
A path to a potential No. 1 seed opened for the nine-loss Tar Heels on Friday when they withstood a late charge from rival Duke in the ACC semifinals and Xavier suffered an upset loss to Providence in the Big East semifinals. Those outcomes give North Carolina a shot to force its way into consideration for a No. 1 seed if it upsets top-seeded Virginia in Saturday’s ACC title game.
With a victory over the Cavaliers, North Carolina would boast 14 quadrant 1 wins, more than any other team in the country. What’s more, the Tar Heels would have amassed an incredible seven wins over teams projected to be seeded fifth or better in the NCAA tournament.
They’ve already taken two of three from rival Duke and won single games against Michigan, Tennessee, Ohio State and Clemson. Adding a neutral-court victory over Virginia to that list would only improve what is already the strongest collection of marquee wins of any team in the country.
Virginia (30-2) is already a lock for the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament and Villanova (28-4) will very likely join the Cavaliers on the top seed line, but the final two spots remain up for grabs with less than 48 hours left before the bracket is unveiled. Kansas (26-7) can sew up the third No. 1 seed if it completes a sweep of the Big 12 regular season and tournament titles. That leaves North Carolina trying to edge out Xavier or Duke if the Tar Heels win on Saturday.
North Carolina’s argument would be very straightforward if it beats Virginia. Not only would the Tar Heels have more than twice as many quadrant 1 victories as Duke or Xavier, the quality of those wins would be superior.
Xavier has only beaten one current RPI top 25 team all season. Duke doesn’t have as many high-end wins as North Carolina and the Blue Devils dropped two of three head-to-head against the Tar Heels.
The case against North Carolina is pretty simple too. The Tar Heels finished in a third place tie in the ACC regular season standings, lost more games than either Duke or Xavier and suffered the single most damaging loss among the three teams, a home loss to Wofford on Dec. 20.
How the committee will view North Carolina compared to the other two candidates probably depends on what its priorities are. If who you beat matters most to this committee, then the Tar Heels have a real chance.
Of course this is all a moot point if North Carolina can’t beat Virginia, no easy feat by any means. The Cavaliers won the ACC by four games and stifled the Tar Heels in their lone meeting, a 61-49 Virginia victory on Jan. 6 in Charlottesville. They boast a capable offense and an intimidating defense that has held 12 teams this season to 50 or fewer points.
At this time last year, eight-loss Duke won the ACC tournament, and some made a case for the Blue Devils to leap to the top seed line. That Duke still received a No. 2 seed has little bearing on North Carolina’s chances this year because their resumes were very different.
Were the quadrant system in effect last season, Duke would have been 6-5 against the top tier. This year’s North Carolina team would be 14-7 if it wins Saturday.
There may not be a precedent for a nine-loss No. 1 seed, but this battle-tested, surging North Carolina team may yet be the first to do it.
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