UNC could be playing its way onto the NCAA tournament bubble. How can it get a bid?

C.L. Brown
·4 min read

North Carolina’s dumbfounding performance in its loss to Marquette may have added some unwanted anxiety in its quest to secure an NCAA tournament at-large bid.

While the Tar Heels (14-8) showed their best in a 99-54 win over Louisville last Saturday, they showed their worst in their 83-70 defeat to the Golden Eagles on Wednesday. What they really revealed is that they can’t feel comfortable right now about getting a bid.

“We’re trying to play our way in and get into the tournament, so we have to remain focused throughout each game that we play,” UNC freshman guard R.J. Davis said. “Each game that we play is gonna be a dogfight. We have to come out ready to play. It’s not gonna be no easy games. So from this point out, we’ve just got to play our best and everyone has to come together as a group.”

Carolina’s best wins have been Louisville and Syracuse at home and its road win at rival Duke. Is that enough to get them an invite? Well, it certainly would help if the Heels finish out the regular season strong to add some security.

Here’s a look at UNC’s NCAA tournament resume and what it could do to improve on it:

Computer rankings

The loss to Marquette dropped UNC from 33 down to 44 in the NCAA Evaluation Tool, also known as the NET, rankings. In a pandemic-plagued season that didn’t have as many non-conference games to compare leagues and teams, the NCAA tournament selection committee may lean more on the NET more than ever in its third season of use since replacing the RPI.

Of course, computer metrics do have their glitches so it won’t be the only metric used to determine at-large bids and seed teams. Penn State, which is No. 39 in the NET, has a losing record but gets a boost because 65 percent of its games have come against Quad 1 opponents.

UNC is ranked No. 35 in Kenpom.com, which is behind teams considered to be fighting their way into consideration like Duke (No. 30) and Georgia Tech (No. 33).

Quadrants

Carolina is just 1-6 against Quad 1 teams this season. (Opponents that are classified as Quad 1 in home games have a top 30 NET; in neutral site games have a top 50 NET; and in road games have a top 75 NET.) UNC is 6-1 against Quad 2; 5-1 against Quad 3, with Marquette representing the loss; and 2-0 against Quad 4.

Teams are constantly changing values based on their performance. It’s worth keeping an eye on Stanford’s progress in the Pac-12. The Heels’ win over the Cardinal (No. 58 NET) on a neutral site in the Maui Invitational could become a Quad 1 win if they inch up eight spots to No. 50.

Stanford got a bump in its NET rankings when its games played in Santa Cruz, California, were re-classified from home to neutral site games. The Cardinal was forced to relocate its home games because of a county COVID-19 ordinance that did not allow them to play in Maples Pavilion.

Bracketology

Most prognosticators have UNC in the tournament and its average seed was ninth. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi had the Heels as a nine seed on Tuesday’s update. Jerry Palm of CBS Sports.com had the Heels as a No. 12 seed playing in the First Four in his Monday update. Out of 116 brackets on Bracketmatrix.com, the Heels were included in 115 of them on Thursday.

What’s next for the Tar Heels?

Carolina closes out the season with three games against teams it has already faced once and the first two games may be the most important.

As bad as things may seem right now for the Tar Heels, Saturday’s game against No. 11 Florida State represents an opportunity to steady their NCAA tournament footing. A win over the Seminoles would mark a much-needed Quad I victory -- as well as their lone win against an Associated Press Top 25 team this season.

Syracuse (No. 56 NET) represents a second opportunity for a Quad I win because it is a road game. The Heels defeated the Orange 81-75 on Jan. 12 in Chapel Hill and have won 10 of the last 11 meetings in the series.

The regular-season finale against Duke (No. 49 NET) on March 6 will likely be played in front of 15 percent capacity. But at this moment, the Blue Devils represent a Quad 2 opponent.

UNC is still positioned to possibly finish in the top four of the ACC and earn a double-bye in the tournament. The Heels are currently tied with Clemson for fifth place in league standings. How they close out the regular season will determine how many games they need to win in Greensboro to feel comfortable about an NCAA tournament bid.