UNC, Duke, and the Folly of Looking Forward in February

Caught this comment in Rush the Court's too-early March preview:

North Carolina - The projected ACC champion has continued to win while Duke and Wake Forest slipped up multiple times. The showdown with Duke on Wednesday is for a #1 seed.

You'll hear this a lot over the next few days, and it's horribly, horribly wrong. The February Carolina-Duke game is almost always great, and I always live and die by it, but it never has any bearing on the NCAA seeding. It's the first week (or on rare occasions the second) of February. Both teams will have six more conference games, including another against each other before the conference tournament. The selection committee puts more emphasis on how you finish, and this matchup won't come up when the two teams will meet once or twice more before Selection Sunday. This is one of the numerous reasons why Bracketology is asinine. It overemphasizes the current state of things, when it's all too fluid in the final month of the season.

Don't believe me? Let's look at some recent high profile UNC-Duke games in February:

 

  • #3 Duke 89, #2 UNC 78  (February 6th, 2008). Duke extended their conference record to 8-0, while Carolina dropped their second ACC game. The Blue Devils would extend that conference streak to ten games before dropping two straight. UNC won out, beating Duke to end the season, and winning the conference tournament. UNC took the number one seed in the East, while Duke was a two in the West.
  • #7 Duke 71, #2 UNC 70 (February 9th, 2005). Duke was a long shot for a number one seed but still in the hunt with a 17-2 record before the game. Again they faded, going 3-3 to finish the season while UNC didn't lose again in the regular season, winning the rematch. The Heels lost to Georgia Tech in the ACC semis, while Duke cut down the nets in DC, but Carolina again nabbed the top seed in the East while Duke took the top seed in the South.
  • #4 UNC 85, # 2 Duke 83 (February 1st, 2001). UNC won this game for new coach Matt Doherty, but lost three of their last six conference games including the Duke rematch, and lost again to Duke in the ACC finals.  Carolina ended up with the number two seed in the South, the Blue Devils the top seed in the East, and absolutely no basketball was played after Selection Sunday. Or for the next two years. You hear me, NONE.
  • #2 UNC 97, # 1 Duke 73 (February 5th, 1998). Both teams were very good this year; Duke won the March rematch 77-75, and then UNC took the tournament crown 83-68. Both teams got number one seeds, but UNC's wins were much more fun.
  • #2 UNC 89, #1 Duke 78 (February 3rd, 1994). Hey look! A February game that actually did decide a number one seed - Carolina went to the East. All though the fact that UNC also won the rematch and won the ACC tournament after Duke flamed out to Virginia probably played a bigger role. The Blue Devils were a two seed in the Southeast.
  • #5 Duke 81, #6 UNC 67 (February 3rd, 1993). Wow, a fourteen point defeat for the Heels. That surely knocked them out of contention for a number seed, and probably ruined their season, too. But why does the year 1993 seem so important? (Duke lost three subsequent ACC games, including the rematch with Carolina by an equally embarassing 83-69. They ended up the third seed in the Midwest while Carolina lost once in the ACC finals and cut down the nets in New Orleans as the East's top seed.)
  • #9 UNC 75, #1 Duke 73 (February 5th, 1992). Carolina's season went downhill after this, as they lost five of their last six conference games including the Duke rematch, and lost again to Duke in the ACC finals. They were a four seed in the Southeast, and Duke was a one seed in the East. The NCAA tournament that year was cancelled due to rain.

So there you have it. In the last seven UNC-Duke games in February where a number one seed was plausibly on the line, the losing team is seven for seven in being a top seed come March, while only twice does the winning team join them. Perhaps it's time everybody just calms down and waits until March before deciding who should be where in the tournament? Because there's actual basketball going on, you know.

 

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