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March Madness 2017: An early look at North Carolina’s competition in the South Regional

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The South sets up well for UNC’s hopes of a shot at Phoenix in 2017.

NCAA Men's Final Four Semifinal - Syracuse v North Carolina Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Here’s how a Tar Heel fan can assess UNC’s draw for any given NCAA basketball tournament:

Take a look at UNC’s draw and imagine that Duke has been assigned to this bracket.

Are you furious? Thinking this is what happens for Duke every year? Yes?

Good. That means this went well.

That, it would seem, is a suitable reaction to North Carolina’s draw in the South Region. To be sure, the South is overall arguably the toughest bracket in the tournament. It’s brutal, in fact.

Here are the top ten in the South, listed by seeding, but accompanied by their KenPom rating (likely a better measure of the raw quality of each team):

1-UNC (#3)

2-Kentucky (#4)

3-UCLA (#18)

4-Butler (#26)

5-Minnesota (#33)

6-Cincinnati (#22)

7-Dayton (#36)

8-Arkansas (#38)

9-Seton Hall (#53)

10-Wichita State (#8) (!!!)

In terms of both reputation and substance, the South is loaded. But this is a tale of two halves of the bracket. The bottom half of the bracket is the most competitive in this year’s tournament, and nearly every member of it has an argument that they’re under-seeded. In Wichita State’s case, it’s really outside the realm of argument. Imagine being Kentucky, fresh off of winning the SEC title convincingly, and knowing that to reach the Sweet 16, you’ve got to beat a 30-4 Shockers team that has repeatedly shown their mettle in March.

UCLA? Assuming they beat Kent State, they have to take on Cincinnati. The Bearcats are 29-5, and somehow got handed a 6 seed. Everyone is talking as if UCLA-Kentucky is a foregone conclusion in the Sweet 16, but on this side of the bracket, that’s a hasty assumption. A Cincinnati-Wichita State sweet 16 matchup is absolutely on the table.

The Tar Heels, on the other hand, are on a far more favorable side of the draw. The highest seed among them is Butler. Butler is no slouch, but on advanced metrics they’re worse than the 10 and 6 seeds that UCLA and Kentucky have to contend with. Next up is Minnesota, who at a KenPom of 33, ranks below Miami (an 8 seed) and just barely above Clemson, who missed the field altogether.

As for potential second-round opponents (no, I am not going to even think about UNC becoming the first 1 seed to lose in the first round), Arkansas rates right next to #39 Northwestern as the weakest 8 seed, and showed nothing in the SEC title game that would suggest that’s an unfair assessment.

It’s March. Anything can happen in a one-game-and-out format, and Arkansas, Butler and Minnesota are all good enough to upset the Tar Heels. That said, it’s hard to imagine any of them upsetting a UNC team playing at or near the peak of the performance levels they’ve shown.

Put in purely analytical terms, here are the average KenPom ratings of the #4, #5, #8, and #9 teams for each of the #1 seeds in the tournament:

Villanova: (Florida, Virginia, Wisconsin, Virginia Tech): Average KenPom: 20.75

Gonzaga: (West Virginia, Notre Dame, Northwestern, Vanderbilt): Average KenPom: 25.75

Kansas: (Purdue, Iowa State, Miami, Michigan State): Average KenPom: 26.75

UNC: (Butler, Minnesota, Arkansas, Seton Hall): Average KenPom: 37.5

Yes, the other half of the South bracket guarantees that if the Tar Heels hold serve, they will face a major obstacle in the Elite 8, regardless of who emerges there. But major obstacles in the Elite 8 are are to be expected. Until that point, Tar Heel fans have every reason to be excited about their prospects for a deep tournament run in 2017.