The NCAA Tournament is approaching, and bracketology season is in full swing. Our “Making the Case” series launches with a look at the North Carolina Tar Heels.
The 2022-23 college basketball season has not been kind to traditional blueblood programs.
Kansas remains in the No. 1 seed mix as always, but the other members of the core quartet have struggled. Duke is settling around the middle of bracketology fields as a projected No. 7-10 seed, while North Carolina and Kentucky are battling for their lives on the bubble. For the Tar Heels, this marks their second-consecutive season in this position.
On Feb. 19 last year, North Carolina was featured in only 60 of 119 bracketology fields (50.4 percent) on the Bracket Matrix — after all, they still hadn’t earned a single Quadrant 1 victory to that point. Of course, we all know how that story unfolded.
The Heels rattled off five straight to end the regular season, earned a No. 8 seed in the Big Dance and reached the national championship game.
North Carolina now finds itself in a similar starting position. The Tar Heels are featured in 52 of 94 (55.3 percent) projected fields, and once again, they do not have a single Quadrant 1 victory. A run to the national championship game feels as unlikely as it did 365 days ago, but their path to an at-large is similar. There are some things to like about North Carolina’s overall resume; quality wins are not among them.
As we enter the final few weeks of the regular season, what historical comparisons are there to North Carolina’s resume? And what does the blueblood need to do to go dancing? Let’s dive deeper into the first Bubble Babble of the 2022-23 bracketology season here at Heat Check CBB.
—NCAA Tournament Bubble Watch 2023: What will it take to reach March Madness?
Déjà vu in Chapel Hill?
So North Carolina was on the bubble at this time last year and also had zero Quadrant 1 wins. But those two facts are far from the only similarities between the two resumes. In fact, the Tar Heels boast the exact same NET ranking as they did at this time last year and are similarly rated across computer metrics:
Even looking into the future, the schedules are similar. Last season, North Carolina’s final five opponents included three KenPom top-70 teams and two sub-100; they played two games at home and three on the road. This year? UNC’s final five regular-season opponents include three KenPom top-70 teams and two sub-100, and — you guessed it — it plays two games at home and three on the road.
Again, don’t use this comparison as evidence that UNC is bound to go on another magical run in March. This is not a comparison of the quality of the two teams, nor their potential to win in the NCAA Tournament. However, the resume and scheduling similarities are notable.
And slightly eerie.
UNC still holds a metric advantage
Just like last season, North Carolina’s computer metrics paint a prettier picture than its actual results. Most notably, the Tar Heels rate in the top 35 in each quality metric (KenPom, BPI, and Sagarin). One would hope their resume will eventually match what predictive metrics believe them to be, but that has not been the case thus far. As a result, North Carolina’s tournament hopes rest on its metrics — at least until it adds some quality wins.
Thankfully, historical precedent is on North Carolina’s side. Metrics are not the be-all-end-all (far from it, in fact) but do provide some historical data. To uncover it, let’s use a basic equation for a weighted metric average, like so:
Applying that equation to each season since 2018-19 shows a clear cut-off point for team to feel safe about their spot at the Big Dance: All 104 teams with a weighted metric average of 38.15 or better earned an at-large bid. Meanwhile, only three of 122 teams in the NET have missed the tournament with a metric average better than 42.5, and all of those occurred in 2019.
As it stands, this year’s North Carolina team had a weighted metric average of 40.5 as of Feb. 17. Here is a quick peek at how North Carolina’s historical metric peers fared at the Selection Show:
Metrics are flawed, every one of them. If the entire NCAA Tournament field could be accurately and unequivocally selected by a computer, it almost certainly would be by now. The fact remains that the selection process is nuanced and features a combination of a bevy of criteria. Metrics might generally seem on North Carolina’s side, but that isn’t the case with the rest of its resume — at least not yet.
Investigating the quadrant records
North Carolina is a dazzling 16-1 against the bottom three quadrants, including a 7-1 record in Quadrant 2. Having such a “clean” resume is a significant bonus in a year like this, with several bubble-caliber teams suffering landmine losses. Of the Feb. 17 Bracket Matrix update, the average number of Q3+4 losses across the last eight teams in the field and first six out is 1.6 — North Carolina has zero.
Here’s a full look at the Heels’ record in each quadrant:
Alas, only one of UNC’s 16 wins this season has come against a projected at-large team (vs. NC State). There’s also that complete lack of a Quadrant 1 win, which is highly problematic. No team in the NET era (since 2018-19) has ever earned an at-large bid without a Quadrant 1 win. No matter how strong North Carolina’s metrics are — and to be clear, they’re not that strong — they are not enough on their own.
A clean resume and solid metrics will not warrant a bid by themselves. North Carolina is one of only two at-large contenders without a Quad 1 win (Utah State is the other). Every other bubble team has a leg up on the Tar Heels in this one crucial category.
Is there hope for a quality win?
But while the ACC is not as ripe with Quad 1 opportunities as the Big 12 or Big Ten, a couple are left on UNC’s schedule. The Tar Heels still have chances against Virginia and NC State. The Tar Heels lost by seven in Charlottesville, and KenPom gives them a 53 percent chance of victory in the return game. As for the latter matchup, North Carolina beat NC State by 11 at home; it will be a slight underdog (40 percent chance of victory) on its road trip.
Winning one — or both — of those games might be essential. If UNC enters Selection Sunday without a Quad 1 win, it would be a tough argument to warrant a bid. None of North Carolina’s already-secured Quad 2 wins are poised to leap into Quad 1, either. If UNC loses to Virginia and NC State, the following opponents are projected to fall under Quad 1 at the ACC Tournament: Virginia, Miami, Duke, NC State, and Pittsburgh.
It would be best not to wait that long, though; the committee did not give much credence to conference tournament results last year (see Texas A&M).
Recent Historical Comparisons for UNC
It is not unheard of for a team to earn an at-large bid with only one Quadrant 1 victory, but it is not common.
In the NET era, four teams have earned at-large-level bids with only one Quadrant 1 win: 2019 Nevada, 2021 San Diego State, 2021 Syracuse and 2022 Houston. Most of these teams lacked the opportunity to win more, with those Nevada, SDSU and Houston teams combining to play just 11 total Quad 1 games. North Carolina has had opportunities — nine and counting, to be precise.
North Carolina’s resume compares most strongly to two teams from the past four years, including that above-mentioned 2021 Syracuse group:
Not only did Syracuse earn an at-large bid in 2021, but the Orange also avoided the First Four. On the other hand, Clemson was not even in the committee’s First Four Out in 2019.
Clear as mud? Thought so. But that’s why the Heels’ final five games are so important. UNC will have chances to play its way into the field, and this team has a clearer outlook than most on what it needs to do.
North Carolina’s overall outlook
Not all bubble teams know what they need to do down the stretch and have the opportunities left to do so.
North Carolina does, though. The Heels need quality wins, and they have two opportunities in their next three games to get them. It’s easier said than done, but at least the path forward is clear.
Other programs on the bubble have much more challenging obstacles to overcome. There are teams with solid metrics and no quality wins, but no remaining opportunities to add them (Utah State). Others have great wins but lack the quality metrics — and the time to improve them — to feel safe about their positioning (Wisconsin). Then there are those that will feel the consequences of early-season stumbles (Clemson) or recent landmine losses (New Mexico) all the way to Selection Sunday.
North Carolina is far from a clear-cut tournament team; rather, this is a bubble squad with fixable issues.
UNC’s metrics fare well against historical comparisons, and its record against the bottom three quadrants is on its side. The lack of quality wins, though, is a potential undoing. It may seem as though there is too much data in this article to arrive at such a rudimentary conclusion, but it truly is this simple: the Tar Heels’ at-large hopes rest on their games against Virginia and NC State.
Win one or both, and Selection Sunday will be interesting and perhaps even worth celebrating. Lose both, and all the antiperspirant in Chapel Hill won’t keep the Tar Heels from sweating bullets for the next few weeks.
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