North Carolina will look to solidify its NCAA Tournament resume with five regular season games and the ACC Tournament remaining before Selection Sunday.
North Carolina is No. 30 in the NCAA's official RPI rankings released on Monday. When factoring in Tuesday's win at Georgia Tech, and action across the country, the Tar Heels moved up to No. 25 according to both RealTimeRPI.com and CBSSports.com.
But while UNC's RPI rank appears to be on solid ground, various NCAA Tournament bracket projections have the boys in blue on or around the bubble. Here's how the primary national mockups have UNC seeded:
USA Today - 9 seed in the South Region
CBSSports.com – 12 seed in the Midwest (play-in game in Dayton)
ESPN.com – 10 seed in the East
For selection purposes, UNC's overall record is 17-8 (its victory over Division II Chaminade doesn't count), including 8-5 in the ACC and 4-6 on the road.
So what's dragging the Tar Heels down?
"UNC's biggest issue is a poor record against better teams," Jerry Palm of CBSSports.com wrote in an email on Wednesday. "They're 1-6 vs. the top 50, 4-7 vs. the top 100. The home win over UNLV is their only win over a likely at-large quality team. They need to fix that."
UNLV currently ranks 17th in the RPI. North Carolina's next best win is No. 66 Florida State. Working in UNC's favor is an absence of bad losses – six of its eight losses are to teams with a RPI ranking of 22 or higher. The other two losses were at Virginia (No. 76) and at Texas (No. 128).
There's been plenty of discussion since late December concerning what final ACC record would be enough to keep UNC on the right side of the bubble. Most fans and media seem to agree that 10-8 or 11-7 would solidify the Tar Heels NCAA Tournament chances, although a ACC Tournament win may be required for the former record to work.
North Carolina's final five regular season games include three home games (N.C. State, Florida State and Duke) and two on the road (Clemson and Maryland). If UNC were to win three of its final five, it would finish with an 11-7 record. Winning just two, however, would drop UNC to 10-8 and bring Thursday into play at a suddenly critical ACC Tournament in Greensboro, N.C.
Even so, the ACC's uneven schedule – which saddled UNC with two games against four of the league's first-division teams – could partially negate the troubles of a 10-8 conference record, according to Patrick Stevens, the man behind USA Today's bracket predictions.
"A 20-11 North Carolina team would probably have only one top-50 victory, but it would also be a favorite of the RPI formula because of some fortuitous scheduling," Stevens wrote in an email on Thursday. "It's not that the Tar Heels played a ton of great teams out of league or even did well against them (1-2 against top-100 nonconference teams). It's that North Carolina didn't play anyone who is truly horrible (300+ RPI), and only one team with an RPI worse than 250 (East Tennessee State)."
UNC's strength of schedule is currently ranked 12th nationally.
A win over N.C. State (No. 22 RPI) on Saturday would all but erase the possibilities of a 10-8 finish minus a collapse down the stretch and would significantly increase the likelihood of an 11-7 or better record.
Palm is not convinced, however, that a win over the Wolfpack moves UNC off the bubble.
"Beating N.C. State Saturday helps, but ideally, they need to show they can play tournament quality ball away from home," Palm said. "They may have to wait until the conference tournament to do that. They also can't afford bad losses, but Clemson is the only bad opponent left in the regular season."
According to Stevens, the more pressing question is this: Will there be 37 other at-large teams that have better profiles than North Carolina?
He doesn't think that's likely to happen.
"An incredible run of conference tournament upsets elsewhere could tighten the field, but a team with a really good schedule, only one particularly bad result (at Texas) and a decent enough road record for that not to be a red flag probably isn't getting left out," Stevens said. "Still, North Carolina could do itself a favor by knocking off N.C. State or Duke, beat a couple other teams down the stretch and put an end to any questions about its postseason viability."
In other words, North Carolina has played well enough to still control its NCAA Tournament destiny. Now the Tar Heels just have to finish the job.