After a bizarre start to the season, are the Tar Heels built for the Tourney?
The award for the most bizarre start to the season undoubtedly goes to North Carolina.
The Tar Heels lost at home to a team Athlon picked second in its division in the Ohio Valley (Belmont) and a week later defeated our preseason No. 2 team (Louisville). That turned out to be a mirage as Carolina lost on the road to a team picked fifth in Conference USA (UAB). Or did it? Three days later, Carolina defeated the preseason No. 3 team (Michigan State) that had already defeated our preseason No. 1 (Kentucky).
Belmont and UAB are both top 100 teams in Ken Pomeroy’s team rankings, and North Carolina sits at No. 8. But the results hint at a team that can beat anyone and lose to anyone on any given night.
How might that shape up for North Carolina on Selection Sunday. Here’s the case for both sides.
The case for North Carolina as an NCAA Tournament team
There’s one word to describe North Carolina’s season to date — schizophrenic. How else do you describe a team that was good enough to beat Louisville on a neutral court and Michigan State in East Lansing yet lost at home to Belmont and to UAB on the road? Clearly this is a team with some issues — the Heels as currently constructed do not have enough outside shooting and they struggle mightily at the foul line — but it’s foolish to suggest this team won’t make the NCAA Tournament, even if guards P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald do not return.
First of all, North Carolina already has two elite wins on its resume. There likely won’t be another team in the nation that will have two wins as good as Louisville and Michigan State — both away from home — throughout the entire season. So if North Carolina finds itself on the bubble in March, these two wins should be more than enough to earn the Tar Heels a bid in the Field of 68.
That being said, it’s unlikely that North Carolina will be on the bubble. Any team that is good enough to beat Michigan State and Louisville is good enough to at least break even in the ACC. Even with two losses in their first seven games, the Tar Heels are still ranked No. 8 nationally by Kenpom.com, checking in with the 17th-most efficient offense and 12th-most efficient defense. Those numbers suggest this team should have no problem winning games in the tough ACC — and no problem receiving a bid to the NCAA Tournament.
The case against North Carolina as an NCAA Tournament team
Wins against Louisville and Michigan State present a great resume for any team. I tend to agree that North Carolina will cobble something together in the ACC season to augment these two wins for an NCAA Tournament bid. But look beyond the names for those two big wins and remember that Carolina’s wins were as much of a product of Louisville and Michigan State playing poorly in the early part of the season. On Wednesday, Michigan State’s lineup was not in a good spot. Adreian Payne was in and out late with cramping (though he still finished with 16 points and eight rebounds. Gary Harris and Keith Appling were hobbled through the course of the game and struggled down the stretch. And Carolina shot 54.2 percent against Louisville. The Cardinals aren’t going to give that up very often. Louisville and Michigan State might not have games that bad for the rest of the season.
North Carolina has plenty of major issues though. P.J. Hairston’s return seems unlikely, and his development helped turn the Tar Heels around a year ago. Marcus Paige can look like an All-America guard, but that doesn’t always happen. And when it does, he’s still the only major outside shooting threat for Carolina. James Michael McAdoo still hasn’t developed, and the big guys aren’t exactly Tyler Zeller or Tyler Hansbrough. Beyond that, this isn't a team that can afford another major absence from a key player.
The ACC’s going to be strong enough to where Carolina will struggle against Duke and Syracuse and deep enough where Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and Virginia will cause problems. Given the way the Tar Heels were outworked against UAB and lost to Belmont, Roy Williams team can’t count on any ACC opponent as a sure thing. I worry about North Carolina like I worried about Virginia last season. The Cavaliers beat teams like Duke and NC State, but in the end they had too many bad losses to overcome to put them in the Tourney.