As this three-game losing streak has unfolded, the response from the most pessimistic segment of the North Carolina fan base has been that the Tar Heels are on a path towards the NIT.
To some extent, that’s an understandable reaction. They’ve played some pretty horrific defense lately and the schedule isn’t getting any easier. The chances that things go completely off the rails aren’t exactly zero.
However before you assume that’s a certainty, remember that what UNC has already done this season is pretty solid. Even with the losing streak and the loss to Wofford, the Tar Heels’ résumé is pretty good. This team may not be as good as the last two seasons, but they’re not in real danger yet. In fact, they compare semi-favorably to a lot of teams.
(Author’s Note: For the purposes of this post, I used the team comparison tool at CBS Sports. It’s not a perfect tool as it uses RPI, which is definitely a flawed metric. The tournament committee uses RPI as part of a composite with other metrics such as KenPom on their team sheets. That being said, the comparison tool was used for convenience, and also because nothing looked especially egregious in teams considered top 50, etc.)
The first team we’ll look at UNC against is Oklahoma. The Sooners have become a relevant team this season thanks in large part to Trae Young. After finishing with a losing record last season, Oklahoma looks to be a NCAA Tournament team and a top half Big 12 finisher.
Both the Tar Heels and the Sooners have played nine games against top 50 teams, with Oklahoma having a slight better record: 6-3 vs. UNC’s 5-4. Oklahoma’s win over Kansas is also probably the best one either team has. They also lost to an Arkansas team that UNC beat by 19 in the PK80.
One thing is UNC’s favor is something that they have over a lot of teams: the Tar Heels have played far fewer bad teams. The only below 200 team North Carolina has played all season is Portland, who they were matched up with in the PK80. Compare that to Oklahoma, who has played five. The Wofford loss will still be an albatross around UNC’s neck, but the numbers bear out that Carolina has played a tougher schedule than a lot of teams.
The next team we’ll compare UNC to is Florida.
Like the Tar Heels, the Gators have been ranked as high a five this season before dropping some games. They have a 5-3 record against top 50 teams. However two of them are against Kentucky and Texas A&M, and those losses don’t look quite as good as they did before the season.
Another similarity between the two teams is that Florida also has what seems like a fairly inexplicable loss. The Gators dropped a early December game to Loyola-Chicago at home. That loss isn’t quite as bad as Wofford as Loyola is borderline top 50 in some ratings, but it’s still a game you would expect Florida to win. The Gators also deal with the disadvantage of having played a bunch of 200+ teams.
Let’s compare UNC to one final team, and just for kicks, it’ll be Duke.
There’s no real doubt that Duke has the better résumé. They’re 19-3, there’s no Wofford loss.
However, the two teams actually have the same number of top 50 wins: five. If we expand that to top 100, Carolina has a 9-8 edge, and they’ve also played a couple more top 100 games (15-11).
Again Duke doesn’t have as bad a loss as UNC’s worst, but they’ve also gotten the benefit of playing some of the weaker ACC teams so far. They’ve already played Wake Forest and Pitt twice. According to KenPom, UNC has the hardest schedule in the country, while Duke is at 25. The Tar Heels have not really played that many truly terrible teams.
By any credible source Oklahoma, Florida, and Duke are all tournament teams. According to the Bracket Matrix, the worst of those teams is Florida, who is currently sitting as a #5 seed.
UNC’s résumé is somewhat comparable to all three teams. Maybe it’s a little worse, maybe a little better depending on who’s looking. Point is, none of those other teams are in any real danger of missing the tournament considering what they’ve done.
Neither are the Tar Heels as of yet. The Bracket Matrix currently has UNC as a #3 seed, which is way better than the doom and gloom some people have espoused would have you think.
If this slump continues, then it’s definitely possible for Carolina to play their way towards the bubble. However, the time to worry about this is not right now.