North Carolina's Blueprint to Make NCAA Tournament After Loss to Duke
After dropping a winnable game at Duke on Wednesday night, North Carolina falls to 16-8 on the season and 6-5 in ACC play.
Now firmly on the NCAA tournament bubble, Roy Williams' Tar Heels (No. 36, RPI) have seven regular-season games left to state their case before the selection committee. That's not where the Chapel Hill faithful expected to be in mid-February, but it's where they are. Time to recalibrate those expectations.
In the slides ahead we break down each of Carolina's remaining ACC games, with an eye toward which ones will have the biggest impact on UNC's tournament fate.
Virginia, Feb. 16 (Home)
Duke and Miami are the only tournament locks in the ACC, leaving roughly five other teams to fight over what should be about three remaining NCAA bids.
One of those teams in the scrap is Virginia. Thanks to an elite defense, the Cavaliers have overcome the loss of departed star Mike Scott and currently sit third in the ACC standings.
Virginia beat North Carolina earlier in the year 61-52. The Tar Heels were characteristically poor from the foul line in that game (9-of-17) and Virginia overcame an eight-point second-half deficit thanks to 19 points from junior Joe Harris.
Carolina has a better RPI and SOS than Virginia, so a season split with the Cavaliers probably gives them an edge if the two go head to head for a bubble spot. A season sweep by UVA, however, would change that calculus entirely.
Georgia Tech, Feb. 19 (Away)
Georgia Tech isn't tournament-bound, so beating the Yellow Jackets won't leave a major impression on the selection committee.
That said, Georgia Tech (No. 121, RPI) isn't so dreadful that a loss in Atlanta would stain Carolina's resume beyond recovery. The Tar Heels can afford to lose three more conference games and still finish 10-8 in the ACC. And of Carolina's three remaining road games, this is the one it can most easily afford to lose.
A win here would provide some insurance for roadies at Clemson and Maryland, but the Tar Heels can weather a loss to the Yellow Jackets.
That's not to say they should expect to lose. North Carolina led from tip-to-finish when these teams met in Chapel Hill earlier this year. The 16-point margin of victory represents UNC's largest in-conference win so far this season.
Verdict: Take it or leave it
North Carolina State, Feb. 23 (Home)
You can take almost everything from the Virginia slide and reprint it here, with a slight caveat.
North Carolina State is a better bet to reach the tournament at this point than the Cavaliers, meaning the Wolfpack are less likely to go head-up with Carolina for the final ACC bid.
Avoiding a sweep against the Wolfpack would be a major step in the right direction for these Tar Heels, but it isn't vital. The selection committee could slot UNC a rung below NC State and still invite teams to the draw.
There is, however, something to be said for the potential gain attached to this game. Besides No. 2 Duke, the Tar Heels don't have a single Top 25 team left on their schedule. N.C. State is at least in the poll conversation, and a home date with the Wolfpack represents UNC's last, best chance for a quality "W."
Verdict: Not a must-win, but a golden opportunity
Clemson, Feb. 28 (Away)
Unless North Carolina wins five of its other six games, I don't see how the Tar Heels could survive a loss at Clemson.
The Tigers are the second-lowest-rated team in the ACC according to RPI, and UNC can't afford a second bad road loss after dropping a game at Texas earlier this year.
For Carolina, the key to this game is tempo. Clemson wants to play slowly, and can cause trouble for opponents when the score hovers in the 50-to-65 range. If the Tar Heels can move the game up and down, Brad Brownell's Tigers simply won't have the offense to keep pace.
Florida State, Mar. 3 (Home)
Florida State's embarrassing 25-point loss at Wake Forest puts it on the very fringes of tournament contention.
Assuming the Seminoles are still in the conversation when these teams meet in early March, Carolina would be wise to seal its superiority with a win.
North Carolina's 77-72 victory in Tallahassee earlier this season remains the Tar Heels' best road win of 2012-13. A follow-up victory in Chapel Hill would all but guarantee that the Seminoles don't slip in ahead of the 'Heels and poach a tournament spot.
But this game is an important one beyond simply the head-to-head implications.
Of UNC's remaining four home games—Virginia, N.C. State, FSU and Duke—this is by far the easiest. Without a win here it's hard to see the Tar Heels getting the 10-or-so conference wins they'd need to make the field of 68.
Maryland, Mar. 6 (Away)
North Carolina's trip to College Park in early March is the Tar Heels' last chance to impress the committee with a quality road win.
Better yet, a victory over Maryland would move Carolina to 2-0 on the season against the Terps and give it a major leg up in any head-to-head comparisons.
North Carolina did a nice job containing UMD big man Alex Len when these teams met in mid-January, and it would behoove the Tar Heels to do the same this time around. Carolina also turned the Terps over a remarkable 21 times, indication that UNC's athleticism can bother a Maryland team that's been shaky in the backcourt all season.
Verdict: Not a must-win, but a golden opportunity
Duke, Mar. 9 (Home)
Even in defeat, North Carolina proved it could hang with Duke in Durham.
The Tar Heels worked Coach K's team on the glass and forced the Blue Devils into an uncharacteristic number of mistakes. Those are valuable takeaways for the rematch still to come.
As long as Duke remains in the top 10—and all indications are that it will—Carolina should enter this game with a good deal of confidence and the tantalizing possibility of a marquee win. Best-case scenario, it's not a win UNC will need.
But if something goes terribly awry in the interim, Duke at home in the ACC finale could be a nice insurance policy for Roy Williams' team.
Verdict: Icing on the cake, but not a must by any stretch