The North Carolina Tar Heels have wrapped up their out-of-conference slate of games this season. Their next contest pits them against the Wake Forest Demon Deacons—their first ACC game of the year.
With a record of 10-3, it seems UNC is in reasonably good shape looking ahead to March, when RPI, strength of schedule and the eye test become so vitally important. But with big wins and bad losses, it is hard to decipher what to make of North Carolina.
The NCAA tournament selection committee has a hard job on its hands every March. There are so many teams to choose from and so many factors to consider. According to the NCAA Principles and Procedures for Establishing the Bracket,
The RPI is one of many resources/tools available to the committee in the selection, seeding and bracketing process. Computer models cannot accurately evaluate qualitative factors such as games missed by key players or coaches, travel difficulties, the emotional effects of specific games, etc.
From past experience, it always seems as though the committee values great wins more than it penalizes bad losses. This means a team that traverses a cupcake schedule unscathed is not thought of as highly as a team that battles through a very tough schedule and grabs a number of quality wins, even if they lose games in the process.
The worry from some universities is already underway. With the end of non-conference play and the realization that they failed to grab many (if any) quality wins, school officials are nervous. North Carolina should not have that problem.
With wins over Louisville at a neutral site, Michigan State on the road and Kentucky at home, UNC has already made a case for one of the better out-of-conference resumes in the country. The losses hurt though and are rather alarming.
A three-point loss at home to Belmont very early in the year can be explained away as a one-time occurrence. Losing to UAB a few weeks later, North Carolina suddenly had a problem. It just wasn't apparent how deep of a problem it was. The mid-December loss to Texas certainly didn't help the situation.
Now on the precipice of ACC play, UNC currently sits on the outside looking in at the top 15 in the latest AP poll. The problem for March stems from where they rank currently in RPI, one of the deciding factors in NCAA tournament seeding. Since the definitive listing is not made available throughout the year, many sites create their own formulas and rankings.
What does this all mean? It means even experts don't quite know how to seed UNC right now. The wins are startling, the losses even more so. Conference play will obviously shed a lot of light on how good of a team this really is, but overall, looking at UNC's resume thus far, it should be a net positive.
By the end of the season, a couple weak losses are mentioned but not harped on. The more important factor is the big wins. We see this every season. When bubble teams get to March, the thing that keeps them out of the tournament is a failure to acquire quality wins. A bad loss could be a deciding factor if two teams are neck and neck, but the good wins push teams over the top. It shows a ceiling of play another team may not possess.
So a 10-3 non-conference record with three great wins and three questionable losses would normally balance out to zero. In this case, it's a net positive for North Carolina come March.