CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – While No. 7 North Carolina was racing out to an 8-0 start in ACC play and a 19-2 record overall last month, its NCAA Tournament resume was taking subtle hits behind the headlines.
By the end of January, UNC had played 11 games against teams ranked outside of the top-100 in the RPI. One of those matchups resulted in the Tar Heels’ first loss of the season, a 71-67 defeat at Northern Iowa (No. 109) on Nov. 21. Meanwhile, UNC had played just one top-50 opponent, a 89-81 victory over No. 10 Maryland (RPI No. 10).
As a result, the ACC-leading Tar Heels find themselves in the unique position of needing quality wins over the final two weeks of the regular season to secure a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Recent wins over No. 12 Miami (RPI No. 7) and Pittsburgh (RPI No. 36) have helped offset losses to No. 11 Louisville (RPI No. 21), No. 23 Notre Dame (RPI No. 28) and No. 15 Duke (RPI No. 11), although UNC is currently in possession of a 3-4 record against RPI Top-50 opponents.
Both Miami and Virginia own 7-2 records against RPI Top-50 opponents. No. 2 Kansas is 9-3 against the RPI Top-50, while fellow Big 12 member No. 3 Oklahoma is 8-4. All four of those teams rank in the top-12 nationally in strength of schedule, according to kenpom.com. No. 1 Villanova’s strength of schedule ranks 33rd, one spot behind UNC, although the Wildcats have an advantage with a 6-3 record against the RPI Top-50.
Fortunately for the Tar Heels, its backloaded schedule continues into the final 11 days where they will face four RPI top-100 opponents, including Virginia (RPI No. 5) and Duke on the road.
“When you get down to this spot, you say, ‘man, these are four big-time games,’ and you know what the challenge is,” UNC head coach Roy Williams said on Tuesday. “But, you know, at this time of year, I’d just assume play those kind of games as any. I really would.”
Saturday’s 96-71 throttling of Miami confirmed that UNC was a better team than it had shown in losing three of its previous five games. The win also gave the Tar Heels a head-to-head advantage of the Hurricanes both in the ACC standings and when it comes time for NCAA Tournament bracketing.
Provided UNC can handle a down N.C. State squad in Raleigh on Wednesday, Saturday’s tilt against the Cavaliers in Charlottesville would offer another opportunity at securing a head-to-head checkmark against NCAAT No. 1 seed competition.
A 3-1 close to the regular season locks up the ACC Tournament’s top seed for UNC, but if that loss occurs at Virginia, the ACC Tournament could end up deciding the league’s top choice for a top-line candidate in the field of 68.
The ramifications over the next two weeks are more of a help than a hindrance, according to Williams.
“I like the fact that we’re playing four games and they all mean something,” the 13th-year UNC head coach said. “There’s no question about that. You’re more fired up. You’re more anxious to get to practice. You want to stay out there a little bit longer. You want to watch a little more tape.”
March is a week away, although it may as well already be here.