The North Carolina Tar Heels have had a disappointing 2012-2013 season after coming into the season ranked No. 11 in the AP Preseason Top 25.
After enduring their latest blowout at Miami, the Tar Heels haven't sniffed the Top 25 in weeks and are sitting squarely on the bubble, according to ESPN's Joe Lunardi. Unfortunately, their 2012-2013 season eerily resembles their 2009-2010 campaign when the Tar Heels finished the regular season 16-15 on their way to the NIT.
The wound of missing the NCAA Tournament in 2010 remains fresh in the minds of many Carolina supporters, who fear that this year may result in the same ending.
Here's why 2013 will be different, and the Tar Heels will play meaningful basketball in March.
Before we start, let's outline North Carolina's tournament resume.
The North Carolina Tar Heels sit at 16-7 overall and 6-4 in ACC play. They are four games back of first place Miami, a game behind fellow bubble goer Virginia and a half game ahead of rival North Carolina State.
They are ranked No. 36 in the RPI and have a similar strength of schedule, ranking 35th toughest. Where they are hurt is their lack of signature wins. Their best win was at home against No. 20 UNLV, but their next best win was at Florida State.
They've gone only 1-5 against the RPI Top 50 and 3-6 against the Top 100, as per their profile page. Additionally, against the best three opponents they've faced this year (Butler, NC State and Miami), they've been down by 20 points at varying points of those respective games.
Luckily for the Tar Heels, they've been able to avoid any embarrassing losses this year (no College of Charleston stinkers) with their worst loss coming at Texas.
Overall, it is an average resume with no red flags, but likewise, there are no statistics that pop off the page.
This North Carolina Tar Heels team is much more talented than their 2010 squad.
James Michael McAdoo leads the way for the Tar Heels, averaging 14.9 points and 8.2 rebounds per game. Ed Davis, from the 2010 team, would be the similar comparison to McAdoo, but McAdoo has a much more refined offensive game and can carry a team for stretches.
The Tars Heels also have deadly shooters this year, something that was not present in 2010. While Dexter Strickland and Leslie McDonald were both on the 2010 team, they were freshmen who didn't know how to play the game. Three years later both have significantly improved their game and have settled into their roles.
Reggie Bullock and P.J. Hairston are players who can score from anywhere on the court, giving the Tar Heels two go-to guys on the wing. Bullock is the better shooter of the two, but Hairston is better at getting into the lane and finishing at the rim.
The one area that is worrisome for Tar Heel fans is at point guard. Marcus Paige is a young freshman who turns the ball over too much and settles for questionable shots too often. He must improve his play as the floor general if the Tar Heels want to finish the season strong.
The North Carolina Tar Heels have one of the most talented frontcourts in the nation. The only problem is that two of the three most talented big men see less than 13 minutes per game.
Joel James and Brice Johnson are only freshman, but both have shown glimpses of their smooth games on both ends of the court. James has struggled mightily in the second half of the season, but he provides the Tar Heels with a more versatile big man than starter Desmond Hubert.
Hubert is a defensive specialist, but saying he is offensively challenged is an insult to the phrase (in his career, he is 4-27 from the free throw line). When he is on the court, the Tar Heels are essentially playing four on five offensively.
Even if James isn't an option, Brice Johnson would still provide an upgrade over Hubert. Like Hubert, Johnson is long and can affect shots on defense, but he provides more of a spark on offense.
If either of these freshman can find their games during the final month of the season, then the Tar Heels could become really dangerous.
Ten North Carolina Tar Heels have seen more than 10 minutes per game this year, proving they are a very deep team.
Depth should be an asset for them during the stretch run of the season in 2013. While some other teams rely on big minutes from a few key players, Roy Williams enjoys a plethora of bodies who can come in and perform up to the level he is accustomed to.
Coming off the bench are some of North Carolina's most talented players.
P.J. Hairston is one of the best sixth men in the country as he provides an instant spark on offense. Leslie McDonald gives the Tar Heels a deadly three-point shooter and leadership. As previously mentioned, Brice Johnson is a starter worthy option coming off the bench and J.P. Tokoto equips the Tar Heels with another dynamic player who can spell the regulars.
What this all leads to is a well balanced offense for the North Carolina Tar Heels.
They can score inside or they can score outside. Unlike in years past, three-point shooting is a strength of North Carolina's team. If they do get down in games, they have a way to quickly make up the deficit by shooting the three ball.
They also have players who can get into the lane and dish to open shooters. Dexter Strickland gives the Tar Heels an experienced player at point guard/shooting guard and is averaging a career high four assists per game this year.
Down low James McAdoo has had his struggles but still remains a blue chipper on the block. He can face-up and shoot or post up down low, providing the Tar Heels with a dangerous big man.
The inside-out game the Tar Heels have will definitely help them over the next month.
The North Carolina Tar Heels are a young team, but they do have some seasoned veterans on the roster.
Dexter Strickland and Leslie McDonald should help the Tar Heels face the pressure of not making the tournament because they were in this position three years ago. No one on the 2010 team had to endure watching the NCAA Tournament from a TV set as these two had to, so their experience should help in that department.
Reggie Bullock has been around for three years and has seen his share of adversity too. He has developed into one of the leaders of this team and will be crucial for the development of the freshmen the rest of the way.
The Tar Heels have had their fair share of ups and downs this year. They've struggled on the road, often looking young and overmatched. To be successful the rest of the way, they must grow from their experiences and learn from their mistakes.
Roy Williams remains one of the best coaches in the country and knows what his team has to do the rest of the way to get into the tournament.
Williams urged that his team should take it one game at a time, and they'll all be tough saying:
The way I look at it, it’s nine games like that. I can’t remember what the third game is after that, but that’s a game I’ll worry about. I don’t remember what the fourth game is, but I know it’s a game I’m going to worry about.
Keeping his team focused over the next four weeks will also be key. He hasn't had a defined rotation yet this year as players have been bouncing in and out of the lineup, so gaining some consistency may help.
Williams and the Tar Heels have two big games this week against two likely tournament teams (Duke and Virginia). If his team can with both games, they will be in great shape come Selection Sunday, but Williams must have his team prepared unlike their most recent big games (see here and here).
We've looked at the intrinsic factors affecting North Carolina's tournament chances, now lets look at the extrinsic elements that will lead to a tournament birth.
A good place to start is the North Carolia Tar Heels' remaining schedule.
There are eight games left for the Tar Heels in the regular season—four at home and four away. The Tar Heels have played great at home and horrible on the road, so luckily for them three of their four games against tournament quality opponents will be in Chapel Hill.
Similarly, three out of their next four games are against teams that will be in the NCAA Tournament or will at least be vying for a spot in it.
The Tar Heels will travel to Cameron Indoor to face the Duke Blue Devils tomorrow night, and a win over their bitter rivals would do wonders for the Tar Heels' tournament chances. It may even put them strongly in the field with no major slip-ups the rest of the way.
With 16 wins already, you might think that the Tar Heels would have to win five out of those eight games to solidly make the tournament. If Carolina can beat Virginia and Florida State at home and take care of Georgia Tech, Clemson and Maryland on the road, that would bring them to 21 wins. Even if they lose against NC State and both games to Duke, it would still be tough to leave a 21 win Carolina team out of the tournament.
When you figure they should also get a bottom feeder in the first round of the ACC Tournament, a win would get them to 22 wins.
As I alluded to in the first slide, the big albatross hanging around the Tar Heels' neck is their lack of a signature win. If the do get swept by Miami, NC State and Duke, would the selection committee take that into consideration more than 21 or 22 wins?
It remains to be seen, but the Tar Heels' remaining schedule gives them every opportunity to erase that question and every other question surrounding them if they can play well.
The NCAA's decision to expand the field to 68 teams is a bonus for any bubble team.
Even if it only results in a play-in-game, you're still in the big dance.
Tournament expansion could be one of the main factors that results in the North Carolina Tar Heels making the field of 68 this year. As mentioned before, Joe Lunardi's S-Curve predicts the Tar Heels to be smack-dab on the bubble.
A hiccup here or there is all that separates North Carolina from missing the tournament. Upsets will happen in Conference Championships around the country shrinking the bubble, so the Tar Heels must step their play up so they aren't sweating it out on Selection Sunday.
Only six teams separate North Carolina from being on the outside looking in, so the extra three spots are looking mighty fine for Tar Heel fans right now.
In the end, what the NCAA is worried about is who will make the most money and sell the most tickets.
North Carolina holds an advantage over 99 percent of the schools, in terms of those criteria.
Even if they are a fringe tournament team, by reaching the 20 win threshold the selection committee couldn't possibly hold them out of the tournament. When the committee compares two teams, the name on the front of the jersey is a factor regardless of what they say.
North Carolina would also hold up under a blind test because of the lack of ugly losses on their resume and their relatively strong RPI and strength of schedule.
It's a resume that says we haven't been great, yet we haven't been horrible.
The Tar Heels may not be a title contender, but they are definitely an NCAA Tournament team.