By R.L. Bynum
While life on the NCAA tournament bubble is an annual routine for Syracuse, North Carolina rarely faces pressure to win in February just to make the field.
In 2010 and 2020, the Tar Heels weren’t even playing well enough to ascend to the bubble. They had to settle for the NIT in 2010, one year after winning the 2009 NCAA title. It didn’t matter in 2020 because the NCAA tournament got canceled.
UNC (17–7, 9–4) hasn’t tasted life on the bubble since 2000, and that turned out pretty well.
At this point in that season, Carolina was 15–9 and was 1–3 against ranked teams. The Tar Heels finished the season 3–4 and lost to Wake Forest 58–52 in the first round of the ACC Tournament. Despite all of that, Coach Bill Guthridge’s third and final team made the field at 18–13, with two consecutive defeats.
Virginia, at 19–11 with two wins over the Tar Heels and the same 9–7 ACC record, was left out.
A key difference compared to this season is that the ACC was much stronger in 2000.
That season showed that, as long as you make the field, no matter how narrowly, anything can happen.
Carolina advanced to the Final Four as a No. 8 seed before losing to No. 13-ranked Florida 71–59 in a national semifinal in Indianapolis. To make the Final Four out of the Southeast Region, UNC beat No. 1-seed Stanford 60–53, No. 4-seed Tennessee 74–69 and No. 7-seed Tulsa 59–56.
It wasn’t the first time that a No. 8-seed Carolina team suddenly got hot after a first-round exit in the ACC Tournament. In 1990, after falling 92–85 to Virginia in overtime in Charlotte, the Tar Heels upset No. 1 Oklahoma 79–77 on Rick Fox’s last-second shot in the second round.
That UNC team lost to No. 7-ranked Arkansas 96–73 in a Midwest Regional semifinal to finish 21–13. At this point in that season, the Tar Heels were 17–8.
Last season was only the third time UNC has been a program-low No. 8 seed. It didn’t work out well in what turned out to be Coach Roy Williams’ final game, an 85–62 loss to Wisconsin. Carolina is 6–3 as a No. 8 seed.
The Tar Heels figure to have an even-lower seed if they make the field this season.
Jerry Palm’s current projection on cbssports.com doesn’t have UNC in the field. Joe Lunardi’s ESPN projection has Carolina as one of the last four teams in as a No. 12 seed, playing in a First Four game.
To keep the Tar Heels’ bubble from bursting, they just need to keep winning.
The game at Virginia Tech (No. 43 in the NET rankings) on Feb. 19 is particularly important because it is one of only two remaining regular-season chances for an elusive Quad 1 victory, along with the March 5 visit to Duke (No. 11).
A Quad 1 game is a home game against a team with a NET ranking of at least 30 or a road game against a team 75 or better. A Quad 2 game is a home game against a team between 31 and 75 or a road game vs. a team between 76 and 135. A Quad 3 game is a home game vs. an opponent between 76 and 160 or a road game against a team between 135 and 240. A Quad 4 game is a home game against a team 161 or lower or a road game vs. a team 241 or lower.
The good news for UNC is that the 72–51 win over Michigan is now a Quad 1 win thanks to two consecutive Wolverines wins, including an 82–58 Thursday victory over No. 3-ranked Purdue. The Wolverines’ NET ranking is now 30.
Carolina is No. 41 in the NET rankings with all seven of its losses in Quad 1 games. The Tar Heels are 1–7 in Quad 1 games, but 3–0 in Quad 2 games, 8–0 in Quad 3 games and 5–0 in Quad 4 games.
A Quad 1 win would help but losses against lesser opponents would be damaging.
Other games left in the regular season are at home against Florida State (93 in the NET rankings; Quad 3) on Saturday, Pittsburgh (185; Quad 4) on Wednesday, Louisville (121; Quad 3) on Feb. 21 and Syracuse (83; Quad 3) on Feb. 28, with a game at N.C. State (131; Quad 2) on Feb. 26.
What makes it harder for UNC is that every opponent except N.C. State and Duke will get the chance for a Quad 1 victory when they play the Tar Heels.
Earning a double-bye in the ACC tournament will be important considering Coach Hubert Davis hasn’t developed much depth. Carolina has a shot, currently tied for fourth at 9–4 with Miami. One issue, though, is that the Tar Heels have lost to the Hurricanes and all three teams ahead of them, making tiebreakers problematic.
Clearly, Carolina’s path to the NCAA field won’t be easy.
day, time, TV
|5||83–55 exhibition win||Home||Elizabeth City State|
|9||83–67 win, 1–0||Home||Loyola Maryland|
|12||94–87 win, 2–0||Home||Brown|
|16||94–83 win, 3–0||Road||College of Charleston|
|20||93–84 loss, 3–1||Uncasville, Conn.||Y — No. 3 Purdue|
|21||89–72 loss, 3–2||Uncasville, Conn.||Y — No. 19 Tennessee|
|23||72–53 win, 4–2||Home||UNC Asheville|
|December (5–1, 1-0 ACC)|
|1||72–51 win, 5–2||Home||X — Michigan|
|5||79–62 win, 6–2, 1-0 ACC||Road||Georgia Tech|
|11||80–63 win, 7–2 ACC||Home||Elon|
|14||74–61 win, 8–2 ACC||Home||Furman|
|18||98–69 loss, 8–3 ACC||Las Vegas||Z — No. 5 Kentucky|
|21||70–50 win, 9–3 ACC||Home||Appalachian State|
|January (6–3, 6–3 ACC)|
|2||91–65 win, 10–3, 2-0 ACC||Road||Boston College|
|5||78–73 loss, 10–4, 2-1 ACC||Road||Notre Dame|
|8||74–58 win, 11–4, 3–1 ACC||Home||Virginia|
|15||88–65 win, 12–4, 4–1 ACC||Home||Georgia Tech|
|18||85–57 loss, 12–5, 4–2 ACC||Road||Miami|
|22||98–76 loss, 12–6, 4–3 ACC||Road||Wake Forest|
|24||78–68 win, 13–6, 5–3 ACC||Home||Virginia Tech|
|26||58–47 win, 14–6, 6–3 ACC||Home||Boston College|
|29||100–80 win, 15–6, 7–3 ACC||Home||N.C. State|
|February (2–1, 2–1 ACC)|
|1||90–82 OT win, 16–6, 8–3 ACC||Road||Louisville|
|5||87–67 loss, 16–7, 8–4 ACC||Home||No. 7 Duke|
|8||79–77 win, 17–7, 9–4 ACC||Road||Clemson|
|12||Saturday, 2, ESPN||Home||Florida State|
|16||Wednesday, 8, ACCN||Home||Pittsburgh|
|19||Saturday, 4, ESPN or ESPN2||Road||Virginia Tech|
|21||Monday, 7, ESPN||Home||Louisville|
|26||Saturday, 2 or 4, ESPN or ESPN2||Road||N.C. State|
|28||Monday, 7, ESPN||Home||Syracuse|
|5||Saturday, 6, ESPN||Road||No. 7 Duke|