UNC Basketball: East Region Questions Heading into the 2014 NCAA Tournament

Todd Salem@@sportspinataContributor IIIMarch 17, 2014

UNC Basketball: East Region Questions Heading into the 2014 NCAA Tournament

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    Upon release of the 2014 NCAA Tournament bracket, controversy began immediately. Fans and analysts griped about who was in and who was out. They wondered about seeding and rationale from the NCAA tournament committee. Even though the most recent slights seem the most egregious, this happens every year. It is part of the fun.

    Let's take a closer look, though, at the East region, where the North Carolina Tar Heels are the sixth seed, set to face the Providence Friars in round two in San Antonio, Texas. The game is scheduled for roughly 7:20 p.m. ET on Friday, March 21.

    Carolina stumbled a bit at the finish, losing its last two ballgames against Duke to round out the regular season and against Pittsburgh in its first (and only) ACC tournament game. The Tar Heels will need to bounce back into the form they had during their 12-game winning streak if they hope to make any noise in the tournament.

    Here are the main questions for Carolina and the East region.

Should Heels Be Worried About Providence?

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    The short answer is no. North Carolina is a much better basketball team. However, the long answer is yes because of how UNC is trending.

    Even counting a few games at the tail end of the team's 12-game winning streak, UNC hasn't started off a game well since the Wake Forest victory back on February 22.

    For five straight games, North Carolina has come out flat and a bit lifeless. Against NC State, it needed a dominant second half to just force overtime. Against Pitt in the conference tournament, the slow opening put them too far behind, even with a miraculous second half.

    If North Carolina sees itself start similarly sluggish against Providence, a victory may become out of reach again. The Friars are not a deep team at all. However, they have a starting lineup of four double-digit scorers, including Bryce Cotton, who averaged 21.4 points per game. The clear edge Providence will have in this game is at the free-throw line. The Friars shoot 78.3 percent, the second-best mark in the entire country.

    Besides the foul-shooting, though, if Marcus Paige just plays Cotton to a draw, UNC should come out victorious. Of course, with Paige's scoring trend, that may involve scoring a lot more than Cotton in the game's second half.

Would Carolina Have Been Better off as a No. 8 Seed?

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    The sixth seed North Carolina received seems a bit low. Looking at the other sixes around the bracket, UNC is clearly the best and most talented of the group. Carolina's season was more deserving of a fifth seed at worst.

    However, slotted as a No. 6, UNC obviously has to get by the Friars of Providence. If it does, the Heels will most likely be forced to face the Iowa State Cyclones in Round 3; which begs the question, would Carolina have been better off being seeded...lower?

    They would not have been, but IF the Tar Heels could have been placed as an eighth-seed, they would probably be better off. Switching spots with the Memphis Tigers, the current East region eighth seed, UNC would face George Washington.

    This is hardly a tougher matchup than Providence. But more importantly, the subset of the No. 1, No. 8, No. 9 and No. 16 seeds are playing their games in Raleigh, North Carolina rather than San Antonio. Wouldn't UNC be better served having a lower seed, but essentially a home game through Rounds 2 and 3?

    If Carolina was to have won the GW matchup, it would face someone it is very familiar with—the top-seeded Virginia Cavaliers—and the game would be in North Carolina. This seems like a dream scenario, partly because of the next question.

Is the East the Weakest Region?

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    This seems like a no-brainer. Everyone is pontificating about Wichita State's raw deal because of the strength of the Midwest region. However, the opposite seems almost as obvious. The East is clearly the weakest region in the bracket, at least at the top.

    Perhaps folks want to argue that the West region is weaker overall. That is fair, considering some of the depth in the middle in the East. In my opinion though, Virginia is the worst No. 1 seed, and Villanova is the worst No. 2 seed, and it's not close.

    The other three No. 1 seeds have been set for awhile now. Florida is the best team in the country. Wichita State is the nation's only undefeated team. Arizona has been nestled in as the third No. 1 seed for ages. The only spot up for grabs was the one UVA was given.

    The strength of Tony Bennett's club is apparent. The Cavaliers' weaknesses are almost as easy to spot, though. Having now passed through conference play, the full scope of a team's resume must be examined.

    UVA has the lowest floor of any top seed. It can go long stretches of many games without being able to convert a field-goal attempt. The Wahoos also managed to lose to Tennessee by 35 points somehow. Even though they are playing at a different level now, that lowest of the low capability has still reared its ugly head at times in February and March.

    Meanwhile, no one is talking much about the Villanova Wildcats because everyone just agreed they are an okay team who is clearly worse than Creighton.

    That mindset is meant in jest, but there is some truth to it. If a team can be that bad defending the outside against an opponent they should already be familiar with, what does it say about Villanova's preparation level and coaching? Or maybe I'm reading too much into that, and Creighton can light just about anyone up.

What Are Carolina's Final Four Chances?

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    The chances North Carolina wins the East region and makes the Final Four are much higher than zero but lower than fans want to think.

    As the No. 6 seed, UNC should have the sixth-best chance of winning, however I think its odds are a little better than that. There are only four teams I would put ahead of UNC as far as favorites to win the East: No. 1 UVA, No. 2 Villanova, No. 3 Iowa State and No. 4 Michigan State.

    I like Carolina's team and positioning better than the No. 5 seed Bearcats, but being the fifth favorite isn't saying much.

    A second-round win over Providence is no guarantee. After that, taking down Iowa State seems daunting. From there, the second-seeded Wildcats most likely await. And if the Heels manage to battle through all of that, they would have to face (most likely) either UVA or Michigan State, and the opportunity to play them in Raleigh, NC would be non-existent.

    A Final Four berth does not seem like it is in the cards, but that doesn't mean anything less would be looked at as a failure.

What Would Qualify as a Successful Season for UNC?

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    This is the toughest question to answer. To many fans, a championship is the goal since this is the University of North Carolina.

    However, the 2013-14 Tar Heels may have been one of the most flawed in Roy Williams' coaching tenure. They have little outside shooting, little guard depth, few veterans and only one guy who shows up every night.

    UNC also slides into stretches of complacency and doesn't exert the effort required for a team with this talent level to win on a night-to-night basis.

    Nevertheless, Williams has dragged these players through a very good regular season, especially considering the start to conference play. They will also start tournament play as a No. 6 seed, meaning they are not expected to advance past Round 3, based on the seeding.

    From that point of view, but also considering everything else at stake with this team and this university, a successful season can be viewed as one where UNC reaches the Elite Eight.

    At that juncture, everything else is gravy. A trip to the Final Four (or further) would be magnificent but cannot be expected. If this team is able to make it to New York for the Elite Eight but lose there, these players should look back fondly on what they were able to accomplish.