UNC Basketball: Breaking Down Tar Heels' 2014 NCAA Tournament Outlook

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UNC Basketball: Breaking Down Tar Heels' 2014 NCAA Tournament Outlook
Gerry Broome/Associated Press

Just one month ago, the North Carolina Tar Heels were uncomfortably positioned on the bubble for the NCAA tournament. Three elite wins out of conference would not be good enough to cover up a dismal ACC season.

At that moment, UNC was 1-4 in the conference, with the lone win coming over 14th-place Boston College (which might seem like a better win now!).

It was not the time to talk about seeding; Carolina was in great danger of missing the tournament entirely. ESPN's Bracketologist Joe Lunardi had Carolina penciled in as an 11th seed and dropping. It was not quite in the "last four" conversation quite yet, but it was well on its way.

Since that point, the Tar Heels have won seven consecutive games. They've moved from near the bottom of the ACC to fourth place, just three losses behind conference leader UVA.

Bracket prognostications now have UNC up to a seventh seed. Both ESPN and CBS Sports currently see Carolina in that range heading into Thursday night's game against Duke. Other brackets even had the Heels up to a seventh seed before some of their recent games. SBNation saw them as a seventh seed at the end of last week; College Sports Madness did as well, prior to their recent win over Florida State.

What all this means is North Carolina seems comfortably in the field come March. That much is certain, barring an epic collapse down the stretch. The team already has 18 wins overall and eight wins in conference. It also already has five wins over RPI Top-50 teams.

That is more than No. 3 Wichita State. It's more than No. 9 Villanova. It is also more than the Duke Blue Devils.

So if UNC already possesses a good enough resume to make the NCAA tournament, how high of a seed can they get?

Right now, Duke remains as the only competition of note remaining on UNC's schedule, the ACC tournament notwithstanding. None of the other four teams that UNC still has to play are projected to make the Big Dance. However, the Heels will play Duke twice before the regular season is done. Winning just one of those two matchups will put Carolina in rarefied air.

Preseason polls are admittedly flawed. They make large leaps of faith regarding players no one has seen yet and assumptions about how teams will develop in just one summer. However, here was the AP preseason Top 4 for the 2013-14 NCAA basketball season:

1 Kentucky (27) 0-0 1,546
2 Michigan State (22) 0-0 1,543
3 Louisville (14) 0-0 1,501
4 Duke (2) 0-0

1,435

No other team in the country received even a single first-place vote to start the season. If North Carolina manages to top Duke just once before the regular season is out, it will have beaten all four of the Top 4 teams in the country coming into the year. It was hard to find any research or history of such a thing occurring before, but it seems unlikely that such a feat has happened very often, if ever before.

With a win over Duke Thursday night, Carolina would grab its sixth Top-50 victory. Already sitting in the Top 30 of the RPI (ESPN has them 26th; Yahoo has them 28th) and with one of the harder schedules in the country (ESPN SOS 17th; Yahoo SOS 19th), UNC is primed to move even further up the seedings.

In the AP poll on Monday of this week, UNC was technically 26th. It received the most votes of anyone not to make the Top 25. A win over the Blue Devils would certainly propel it back into the rankings and into the territory of a fourth or fifth seed for the next set of bracket projections.

However, even a loss to Duke will not set North Carolina back too far. With wins over Pitt and Clemson in recent weeks, UNC has securely placed itself amongst the top four of the conference. And with that, the Heels have clawed their way out of the doldrums that plagued them near the turn of the calendar year.

Bubble watch has been officially replaced with seeding talk.

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