I’ve said it before, but it’s amazing how much difference one year can make. Last year, Carolina didn’t have a chance to officially wrap up a double bye in the ACC Tournament until the final week of the season, and their NCAA seed was all over the place.
This year? Carolina can make the double bye official on Tuesday and their NCAA standing is pretty static. It’s a lot easier to figure out what Carolina needs to do from here to achieve their ceiling in terms of seeding, and the hope here is that by next weekend at this time, we’re talking about what Carolina needs to grab at least a share of the ACC Regular Season crown.
Let’s dive in, shall we?
We begin, as always, with the standings. Each week we basically cut off the standings at the lowest Carolina could fall to. With 12 wins, that means the worst record they could possibly have is 12-6.
ACC Standings 2/24
Using the old “If the Tournament started today” trope, Carolina would have the two seed in the ACC, thanks to the rules of the mini-conference tiebreaker. In case you don’t remember from last year, when more than two teams are tied for a spot, they are pulled apart and sorted out by their combined record against the other two teams. The better the winning percentage, the higher your seed. Thus, Duke at 2-1 is first, UNC at 1-1 is second, and UVA at 1-2 is third. Should there be a two team tie after that, head to head is used, then you go with how you did against teams in the standings in order to break it.
Last year, we really needed to know all this because that complicated math landed Carolina the sixth seed in the ACC after they lost their last two games of the regular season. This year? The math is pretty much straight forward.
First off, the easiest math to pull off is that should Carolina win Tuesday night against Syracuse, they have clinched a double bye. Why? Even if Carolina were to lose out after beating the Orange, the worst they could finish is 13-5, and the only other teams that could finish with five losses would be Virginia Tech and Florida State. FSU and the Hokies still have a game to play against each other, so one of them will end up with six losses. Thus, Carolina could only tie with one of them, meaning it’d be a tie for third. Carolina also has the head to head win against both of them, meaning they get the three seed.
Get all that? TL;DR: if Carolina wins Tuesday, the double bye is not only locked up, the worst they can do is the three seed.
Let’s talk bad scenarios now. What happens if Carolina were to lose Tuesday? Well, a win in Clemson the game after still guarantees they finish with no more than five loses, meaning the worst case is a three-way tie for third with Syracuse and one of either Virginia Tech or Florida State. Carolina would be 1-1 in the mini-conference, Virginia Tech would be 1-1, Florida State would be 1-1, and Syracuse would be 1-1. So then you go with how each team did against the top seeded team, then the next, and so forth. There are so many ways that could shake out, but it’s possible that Carolina could finish fifth in that scenario.
What if a catastrophe happened and Carolina were to lose out? Well, if the Orange win out, and one of Virginia Tech and FSU win out, that’s two teams for third and fourth, In the “worst case” Louisville also wins out, creating a mini-conference between UNC, Florida State/Virginia Tech, and Louisville.
So, Carolina hasn’t quite locked up the double bye yet, but a win Tuesday cleans up everything and makes it to where Carolina just has to look ahead of them and not behind. At that point the scenario is simple: win out and hope UVA loses one time to get the one seed. But first, secure the double bye.
There isn't a lot of suspense in this space, either. Right now, the consensus around Carolina is that they are a two seed, and to be honest, they aren’t going to be in the discussion for a one seed unless they win out in the regular season and go deep in the ACC Tournament.
The problem is that Gonzaga has one of the top spots locked in, one of Kentucky, Tennessee, and LSU will get another one (LSU is unlikely but with wins against both the Cats and Vols, they are starting to make noise). This means there’s only room for two of Duke, UVa, and the Heels. This is where the loss to the Hoos hurts the Heels, because Virginia only has being swept by Duke working against them. Should Carolina finish on a hot streak, the committee would likely look at that game as the tiebreaker between the two. Maybe sweeping Duke could get Duke’s one seed taken... nah, we all know the committee won’t do that.
Nothing has really changed so much in the discussion for playing in Columbia, SC, either, for Carolina. With Tennessee’s loss Saturday and Kentucky’s continued hot play, UVa probably has slid into the second Columbia spot. Again, to play in Columbia, Carolina is going to have to be viewed as a higher seed than two of Duke, UVA, and Tennessee. Why is Kentucky not in this mix? Because as the crow flies, Columbus, OH is closer for them than Columbia, SC. Their fans can go ahead and buy tickets to that pod now.
Tennessee still has to face Kentucky again and then get through the SEC Tournament, so it’s possible - in fact, likely - that Carolina is a higher seed than the Vols should the Heels end the season on a hot streak. Again, though, the problem is being viewed as a better seed than either Duke or Virginia. Maybe a season sweep of the Devils and a little help from the SEC is enough to get the Tar Heels into Columbia, but what’s more likely is that they’d need to get to at least the ACC Tournament Championship to have a better case.
The other thing to keep in mind is that with Duke and UVA in good shape to end up with a one seed, you might as well get comfortable with the idea of being the two seed to either Gonzaga or Kentucky/Tennessee.
The reason for this is that the NCAA doesn’t just bracket teams by seed. The easiest way to build a bracket is to put the strongest one seed with the weakest two seed, and so on. However, according to their own procedures, there’s a pretty big exception that prevents Carolina from being in the same region as the other ACC schools:
Each of the first four teams selected from a conference shall be placed in different regions if they are seeded on the first four lines.
Thus Duke, UNC, and UVA, assuming no one finishes below a four seed, can’t be in the same bracket. It’s assumed the highest seed will get the East, and then the next one seed from the ACC would be fighting with the SEC top seed for the South. Right now, most are giving that to Virginia, meaning the SEC team gets the Midwest. Carolina would very likely go out there, although there’s a chance they end up going out west.
The preference for the committee is to keep a team closer to home, but they also build the bracket to make it to where each region is, by their seed list, equal in strength. So, they actually rank every team 1-68, and of the top 16 they then try to spread them out to where when you add up their actual seed, each region is close. Thus, if they feel moving Carolina out west balances that region better than keeping them in the midwest/south, they will do that.
It’s fair to say that unless Carolina wins or loses every game from here on out, they will be a two seed. Using those guidelines above, you can almost predict where they will end up no matter how everyone else is seeded. It’s another way that this year is the opposite of last year: you almost can ignore all the brackets going out there because until you get to the end of the season, Carolina’s spot will not move. That is, as long as they play as expected until the final Duke game.
Let’s just hope by then that game is for, at worst, a share of the ACC Regular Season title.