After two straight wins, the most optimistic of North Carolina fans have allowed themselves to start thinking: what would it take?
During UNC men's basketball's recent five-game skid, it seemed like the team's only hope at an NCAA Tournament bid would be a miracle run in the ACC Tournament, bolstered by the theoretical return of first-year guard Cole Anthony. But impressive wins over Miami and N.C. State have the Tar Heels back on a winning track, and with the team at 10-10 on the year with a 3-6 mark in conference, an at-large March Madness bid still wouldn't be totally out of the question if the turnaround sticks.
It won't be easy. Neither CBS nor ESPN's most recent bracketology analyses have UNC in the 68-team field, nor in the "first four out" category. But with the recent stellar play of Garrison Brooks and Brandon Robinson, and if Anthony's return comes sooner rather than later, an exceptional showing to finish the season seems possible, though improbable.
Currently, the Tar Heels are ranked 70th in the country in BPI according to ESPN. Their best win came against Oregon, currently No. 11 in the country, but losses to the likes of Wofford, Georgia Tech and Pitt (twice) serve as stains on the team's resume.
With 11 ACC regular season matchups still to play, and the 29th most-difficult remaining schedule, per Team Rankings, it's not only a matter of how many games the Tar Heels can win, but who they can beat. Two matchups with Duke still await, as do road games against heavyweights Florida State and Louisville; one figures UNC will have to win at least two, maybe three of those games to vault into the bubble conversation.
A deep run in the conference postseason wouldn't hurt, either, if Roy Williams' squad can knock off a good team or two before getting bounced.
The biggest question mark, as it's been for much of this season, is health. Robinson injured his ribs against the Wolfpack (though X-rays for bruised ribs came back negative), while the four-to-six week window for Anthony's return from meniscus surgery has come and gone. Consider the fatigue factor, too: Brooks, who at times has been the Tar Heels' only offensive threat, has logged at least 35 minutes in eight of the last nine games, including a monster 48 minutes in a double overtime loss to Virginia Tech.
For an at-large bid to become reality, UNC will need that core three to be not only healthy and fresh, but dominant down the stretch.
Who else could step up? First-year center Armando Bacot has looked more like his early-season self lately, while graduate transfers Christian Keeling and Justin Pierce came up big in a crucial late stretch against N.C. State. In all likelihood, any potential UNC hot stretch will be the result of a collective effort; if Robinson cools off from deep, or Brooks' big minutes start to pile up, someone will have to be there to pick up the slack.