The NCAA Tournament is approaching and bracketology season is in full swing. Our “making the case” series continues with a look at the North Carolina Tar Heels.
Putting “North Carolina” and “bubble” in the same sentence simply does not feel right. Yet, that is where the Tar Heels stand at this point in the 2021-22 season, hovering right around the projected cutline. Head coach Hubert Davis’ first year at the helm has been a mixed bag. UNC has generally taken care of business against sub-par competition but has struggled to acquire signature wins. Efficiency metrics, though, still paint North Carolina as a potential at-large team.
North Carolina might own the biggest disconnect between its computer metric standing and actual quadrant record evaluation of any team in the country. As a result, the blueblood is causing headaches for bracketologists. The Tar Heels are currently featured in 77 of 132 projected fields on the Bracket Matrix; they earned a No. 12 seed as a First Four team in our most recent update (Feb. 22) at Heat Check CBB.
With that said, it’s time for the second installment in our “Bubble Babble” series, which dives into specific at-large contenders. The pieces dive into the metrics, quadrant records, future schedules, and any other extenuating circumstances that the NCAA Tournament selection committee might take into account during its meetings.
Introduction aside, let’s dive deeper into UNC’s team sheet and “make the case” for why the blueblood could make the NCAA Tournament.
Computers love North Carolina
North Carolina’s argument to deserve an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament starts with its computer numbers, which are excellent compared to the rest of the bubble. The Tar Heels might lack the quality wins that other teams have – more on that in a bit – but their metrics stack quite nicely when compared to the teams around them.
Six metrics are on the selection committee’s team sheet for every team. The NET is the sorting tool that qualifies which games fall under which quadrant; your own NET is important, though perhaps less so than the NET of your opponents. KPI and SOR are results-based “resume” metrics and back up what a team has done to date. KenPom, Sagarin, and BPI are efficiency-based “quality” metrics. In total, the six numbers provide a checks-and-balances of sorts for each other.
From a sheer metrics standpoint, North Carolina is already in a pretty good position. The Heels rank 42nd in the NET, average 37.5 across the two resume metrics, and 36.0 across the three quality metrics. While none of those are “elite” marks, they are all above most bubble teams. North Carolina ranks 36th nationally in an average of all six team sheet metrics, equating to a No. 9 seed if computer numbers were the be-all-end-all.
There have been two NCAA Tournaments with advanced metrics on team sheets. Over that time frame, every team with Top 40 rankings in both average quality and resume metrics – criteria that North Carolina currents fit this year – has made the field. Here is how past teams with similar metric rankings (between 30-45 in both metric categories) as this year’s UNC team have been seeded:
Not only did all of them actually make the NCAA Tournament, but many of those teams earned single-digit seeds.
Investigating the quadrant records
The quadrant records are where North Carolina’s at-large case gets a bit hairier. While the Tar Heels’ metric rankings rate better than most bubble teams and have historical precedent on their side, will that be enough to overcome a weak nitty-gritty? The quadrant record facts are not overly pretty given a lack of quality wins coupled with a bad loss. This is the total overview of UNC’s current situation:
Noticing the negatives…
Many will note that North Carolina is currently 1-7 in Quad-1 games and that is a major detractor from their current at-large hopes. Perhaps just as important to note is how poorly they have played in those games. The Tar Heels lost those seven games by an average of 17.1 points. Adding further context, their lone Quad-1 win was over Virginia Tech, a likely non-tournament team that is without a Quad-1 win itself.
The other notable negative in North Carolina’s quadrant records is the home loss to Pittsburgh that currently slots in Quad-4. That defeat is a huge killer, considering the Tar Heels could make the argument for having a “clean resume” void of bad losses without it. Even if the Panthers jump into the NET top 160 and make it a Quad-3 loss, it is still a huge blow.
The Tar Heels have failed in their opportunities to beat quality teams throughout the season and still lack a win over a team projected to land better than a No. 11 seed. If Michigan slides out of the field down the stretch, there is a chance that UNC enters Selection Sunday without a single win over the field. It is pretty easy to make an argument against North Carolina’s at-large candidacy based on its quadrant records. However, that is not the point of this article; there are positives to evaluate as well.
Diving into the positives…
Perhaps the most notable positive is UNC’s combination of overall record and strength of schedule. The Tar Heels are 20-8 for the year and boast the 58th toughest schedule in the country. The committee will also love to see that the Tar Heels hold the 34th-toughest nonconference strength of schedule rating. Even if they mostly failed the tests, they showed up to take them more than most others.
While they lack quality wins as already discussed, North Carolina boasts an excellent collection of mid-tier victories. The Tar Heels are 19-1 outside of Quad-1 (15-0 in Q2+3 games); while those might not be victories over projected tournament teams, they have proven capable of beating the solid competition with consistency.
UNC’s 19-1 record in such games looks quite nice when compared to fellow bubble teams like Memphis (12-6), Rutgers (11-7) and Oregon (14-6). It is also important to note that UNC has only played five games in Quad-4; one of those was a loss, but playing more mid-tier opponents than bottom-tier ones gives them a leg up in SOS and overall quadrant comparisons relative to teams like Dayton (11 Quad-4 games), Indiana (eight Quad-4 games), Belmont (15 Quad-4 games) and BYU (eight Quad-4 games), among others.
One upcoming opportunity is also vital to note: at Duke. While winning at Cameron Indoor on what is essentially Coach K’s Senior Day might feel impossible, the Tar Heels could use that victory to bolster their resume. Not only would a win propel their metrics to the point where it would be really difficult to exclude them from the NCAA Tournament, but it would also signify the signature win that they have been greatly lacking.
North Carolina’s overall status
North Carolina’s at-large case hinges on how much the committee will value metric rankings. If in-season comments are any indication, it feels as though metrics could play a larger role in seeding and selection than they have in the past, which would be great news for UNC. They would be the highest-rated team in metric averages (36.75) to miss the tournament during the modern team sheet era (two documented seasons).
Looking ahead, the best thing that the Tar Heels can do is add a signature win. The metrics are already on their side, as are their overall record and SOS rating. Winning only one of eight Quad-1 games, though, could come back to bite them if they do not add another. I’m not sure that winning at Duke is mandatory for the Tar Heels to make the tournament, but a victory would make it very difficult to leave them out.
Simply having that opportunity on the schedule is a major plus compared to other bubble teams – especially mid-majors – who do not have that caliber of a chance left. If UNC can take advantage, it will have filled the biggest hole on its team sheet. That game could be the missing piece not only to locking up a bid but avoiding the First Four as well.
However, winning at Duke is far easier said than done. If North Carolina is unable to secure that victory, it needs to win its other two regular-season games (at NC State and vs. Syracuse) while maintaining excellent metrics. For reference, three teams earned at-large bids last season with only one Quad-1 victory each. Recent precedent is on the Tar Heels’ side with regard to how their metrics will likely translate to selection and teams have danced without great wins in the past.