After a morale-boosting win to complete a season sweep of Duke, the North Carolina men’s basketball team now must quickly shift its focus to postseason play.
Saturday's win virtually guaranteed the Tar Heels a spot in the NCAA Tournament. But it also helped them jump Louisville to claim to sixth seed in the ACC Tournament.
From now on, there are no more chances to bounce back. It’s single-elimination. In order to have success in March, the Tar Heels will have to do something they haven’t been able to do all year: maintain consistency.
Here’s what the path looks like for UNC in both tournaments.
The Tar Heels were already a lock for a single bye heading into their final matchup of the regular season. All that was left to be decided was whether they were the sixth or seventh seed. Either position meant avoiding top-ranked Virginia through the early rounds, a team Roy Williams-led squads have recently struggled against.
The path for UNC appears easier than that of the seventh-seeded Cardinals. The Tar Heels will face either Wake Forest or Notre Dame, two teams that they have already beaten. Louisville will also face one of two teams they’re unbeaten against. But the big difference is the third round opponent.
The Cardinals will have to battle Florida State if they advance, which, despite a bad loss against the Fighting Irish, is still a threat to win the whole tournament. Leonard Hamilton is a top head coach in the ACC and should have his team prepared to bounce back. The Seminoles have a potent offense fueled by depth and good 3-point shooting. It's a benefit that North Carolina gets to avoid them until the semifinals, if both teams make it there.
If UNC wins, its next opponent is Virginia Tech, which has had several long pauses due to COVID-19 cases and hasn't played a game since Feb. 27. The Tar Heels dominated the last opponent that came into their matchup off a break, beating Louisville 99-54. If the Hokies start out rusty, North Carolina should be able to advance.
It has been a tough year for the ACC, with no clear frontrunner even as March begins. Over half the teams in the field have a realistic chance of winning it all, and UNC is part of that group. It’ll all depend on whether North Carolina's most talented players can step up and help the team play to its potential in consecutive games.
North Carolina’s road in Indianapolis is a lot murkier. The Tar Heels are currently penciled in as a ninth seed, according to Joe Lunardi’s ESPN Bracketology. A lot can change with a run in the ACC Tournament, but it’s most likely that they will be in the 7-10 or 8-9 matchup heading into March Madness. While the first round matchup will certainly be winnable, the Tar Heels will cross paths with a top-10 team earlier than desired.
In the current Bracketology, UNC is slated to face Michigan, one of the favorites to win it all, in the second round. Even if it’s a different team, there’s a clear divide between the No. 1 and 2 seeds and everyone else.
The Tar Heels would have to play near-perfect basketball if they want a chance of upsetting a top seed. That means they cannot beat themselves with turnovers and slow starts, which they have fallen into a habit of doing at times this year.
The two games against Duke showed that UNC can effectively use its talent and produce great results. Now comes the ultimate test of March.
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