Surprising? Unfair? Conspiratorial? These words all probably flashed through the minds of Tar Heel fans across the country when it was revealed on Sunday evening that the UNC had earned an 8-seed and a potential second-round matchup with Kansas in this year’s NCAA Tournament. Many felt that UNC had done enough in beating FSU and Maryland and playing Miami evenly for about 36 minutes in the ACC Tournament to warrant at least a 7 and possibly even a 6-seed. Based on RPI, strength of schedule, and record vs. the Top 100 in the RPI, Carolina was better than each of the teams placed one slot higher. Even in advanced per-possession metrics (kenpom.com), which are supposedly now utilized by the tournament selection committee, UNC is rated better than both Notre Dame and Illinois, who both received sevens. None of these statistics even consider the fact that UNC has been a much better team since moving PJ Hairston into the starting lineup. Fans of other schools are probably rolling their eyes at the complaints of Carolina’s supporters given that UNC has traditionally been a powerhouse. Nevertheless, some Heels fans think it a strange coincidence that the Tar Heels are seemingly under-seeded and slated to meet Roy Williams’ former team in Kansas City should they beat Villanova…a realllllly coincidental coincidence that would make for excellent television.
But maybe the selection committee was simply down on the ACC this year. Neither Duke nor Miami received a 1-seed in spite of seemingly-deserving profiles, especially since no team has ever been denied a spot on the top line after sweeping the ACC regular season and tournament titles. Maybe the committee realized that the Heels have beaten only two NCAA tournament teams this season, NC State (8-seed) and UNLV (5-seed), and both games were at home. Maybe the committee looked at UNC and saw a team that recently got smacked by Duke on its own court…a team that couldn’t defend Miami’s scorers when it needed to get stops to win the ACC Championship…a team that wasn’t ranked for most of the year because it just wasn’t one of the twenty-five best teams in the country. Or maybe the committee is made up of a bunch of idiots. It’s hard to say right now.
Regardless, this has been a crazy year in college basketball. None of the teams at the top of the polls have been truly dominant; heck, a team from the WCC (that’s the West Coast Conference, for those of you that haven’t heard of it) ended the regular season with the #1 ranking. The beauty of March Madness lies in the upset, the electricity that grabs hold of the audience as an underdog is matching the favorite shot for shot, the thrill of seeing the unexpected happen, the success of those that were written off early on or never given a chance to begin with. With the favorites less than a sure thing this year, the tournament seems ripe for excitement and magic.
This year, Carolina has its lowest seed in history (tied with 1990 and 2000) and is taking on the mantle of underdog/Cinderella for one of the first times ever. But for this team, this year, the slipper might just fit. Statistical analysis by Jordan Brenner and Peter Keating at ESPN has shown that the teams most likely to stage major upsets (difference of five or more in seeding) have high variability in performance; the wider the range of possible performances, the more likely it is that a team puts together the type of special performance required to beat a giant. Some of the key characteristics that they’ve identified for “Giant Killers” include making a lot of three pointers and forcing turnovers. Jacking up long distance shots and gambling for steals are the kinds of high-risk, high-reward strategies employed by the most dangerous low seeds, and the Heels are starting to get pretty good at doing those things, based on their performance over the past few weeks. Obviously, if the shots aren’t falling, the result can be really ugly (just watch the highlights from the Duke game in March if you can stand to), but if Hairston and Reggie Bullock can continue their torrid shooting from outside, the Heels have a shot against anyone.
The odds are seemingly stacked against Carolina to do something special in this year’s tournament, but each of the previous two times they were an 8-seed, the Heels took down a top seed and advanced to at least the Sweet Sixteen. Maybe there’s a little magic left in store for this team. We’ll find out starting on Friday.
All Photos in Hoop It Up are provided by Todd Melet.