The good news for UNC basketball is that the Tar Heels are one of three teams in the Battle 4 Atlantis field that can expect to bring lofty rankings into the November tourney. The bad news is that three is an odd number.
Now that the draw has been announced, North Carolina knows that the other two power teams in the Bahamas (Wisconsin and Florida) are on the opposite side of the bracket. As a result, UNC is only going to get one game that can really help its own ranking, and that will be in the tournament final.
Had either the Badgers or Gators landed on the Tar Heels’ side of the draw, there would’ve been an opportunity for two signature wins and a corresponding chance to salvage a potential runner-up finish with an earlier statement victory. Instead, Marcus Paige and company will be expected to cruise into the finals, and any stumbles will really do a number on their positioning in the Top 25.
UNC opens the tournament facing undermanned Butler, which (even with a healthy Roosevelt Jones) lacks the offensive firepower to keep up with Roy Williams’ troops. The Heels then get the winner of Oklahoma and UCLA, which should be a great game in its own right but won’t provide North Carolina with an opponent close to its own stature.
The Sooners, who return most of their roster from a 23-win team, are the better bet to hold a spot in the national rankings as they arrive in the Bahamas. Even so, an offense that couldn't outscore North Dakota State last March will have an awfully tough time trading shots with the Tar Heels now that top forward Cameron Clark is gone.
UCLA, meanwhile, is starting from scratch after the departure of four starters and its top reserve. The Bruins have loads of freshman talent, but UNC can see the young talent and raise them a veteran Wooden Award favorite in Paige (not to mention the experienced front line of Kennedy Meeks and Brice Johnson).
The upshot is that North Carolina is going to open with two opponents that it’s expected, by any measure, to beat handily. That leaves only the title game, likely against the Florida-Wisconsin winner, to make any sort of impression on the selection committee or the Top 25 voters.
Obviously, UNC is a program that enters any tournament with a championship on its mind. However, even the Tar Heels are often in a position to save face with a second-place finish. That won’t happen in the Bahamas.
A loss to mighty Wisconsin (or even the less-loaded but dangerous Gators) won’t especially hurt North Carolina. However, with the brutal ACC still ahead, the Tar Heels will be a lot happier if they can secure a high-quality win in November than if they limp home with a second-place finish and a national ranking that hasn’t gotten any stronger.