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How North Carolina men's basketball can make the NCAA Tournament

UNC junior guard Caleb Love (2) watches Clemson junior guard Chase Hunter (1) during the men's basketball game against Clemson at the Dean E. Smith Center on Saturday, Feb. 11, 2023. The Tar Heels could face the Tigers if they progress to the semifinals of the ACC Tournament in Greensboro this week.

Figuring out the math of NCAA Tournament selections can be a mind-numbing process.

NET rankings? Quad One wins? Last Four In?

Gone are the days when 20 wins and a winning record in the ACC was essentially a free ticket to March Madness. With this middling North Carolina team likely on the outside looking in, there are far more factors to consider ahead of Selection Sunday on March 12.

Here is your definitive guide to how the Tar Heels can make it back to the NCAA Tournament:

How the tournament field is selected

Sixty-eight teams make the tournament, 32 of which earn automatic bids by winning their respective conference tournaments. The remainder of the bracket is filled out with teams that earn at-large bids granted by the NCAA Division I men's basketball committee.

The four lowest-seeded automatic qualifiers and the four lowest-seeded at-large teams play in the First Four, which are play-in games to make the full 64-team bracket. If the Tar Heels, which have flirted with the dreaded "bubble" for the past several months, were to earn an at-large bid, they would likely be playing in one of these First Four games in Dayton, Ohio.

Explaining the NET

The NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET) has been used since the 2018-2019 season as the committee's primary metric for evaluating potential tournament teams.

The NET ranks teams based on the quality of their wins and losses, strength of schedule, scoring margin and net offensive and defensive efficiency.

NET rankings also help evaluate a team's resume using the committee's quadrant system. This is how the quality of wins and losses are determined, and it's a major factor in determining at-large bids. The quadrant system breaks down as follows:

  • Quad 1: Describes home games against opponents ranked in the top 30 of the NET, neutral-court games against opponents ranked in the top 50 or away games against opponents ranked in the top 75.
  • Quad 2: Describes home games against opponents ranked 31-75, neutral-court games against opponents ranked 51-100 or away games against opponents ranked 76-135.
  • Quad 3: Describes home games against opponents ranked 76-160, neutral-court games against opponents ranked 101-200 or away games against opponents ranked 135-240.
  • Quad 4: Describes home games against opponents ranked 161-353, neutral-court games against opponents ranked 201-353 or away games against opponents ranked 241-353.

The quadrant system is dynamic, meaning that as NET rankings change, so can a team's record in Quad One games. For example, North Carolina currently has a singular Quadrant One win against Virginia. However, if the Cavaliers – currently sitting at No. 30 in the NET rankings – fall just one spot, it would once again leave the Tar Heels with a winless record in such contests.

If UNC was to lose that Quad One victory, it would be a serious blow to the Tar Heels' tournament resume.

Looking toward the ACC Tournament

North Carolina is ranked 49th in the NET as of March 6, and its most glaring deficiency is its lack of signature wins. On Saturday, the Tar Heels missed out on their latest opportunity to notch another Quad One win against NET No. 25 Duke at home.

Because of these factors, UNC's hope of making it back to the Big Dance rests on the upcoming ACC Tournament, which will be held from Tuesday, March 7 through Saturday, March 11. Seventh-seeded UNC may have to win it all to earn an automatic bid, or at least make a deep run to have a chance at an at-large selection that would keep its postseason dreams alive.

Also on UNC's side of the ACC bracket are fellow bubble teams Clemson and N.C. State. If the Tar Heels win their first game on Wednesday, they will face No. 2 seed Virginia — who, remember, could slip in the NET rankings with a loss, which would take away UNC's lone Quad One win. 

So, even if the Tar Heels overcome the Cavaliers, they may still have some work to do to prove themselves worthy of an at-large bid.


@dthsports |

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Lucas Thomae

Lucas Thomae is the 2023-24 sports managing editor at The Daily Tar Heel. He has previously served as an assistant sports editor and summer editor. Lucas is a senior pursuing a major in journalism and media with a minor in data science.