With an 80-72 home loss to No. 23 Miami on Monday, North Carolina has now lost four of its last five games and is 16-10 (8-7 ACC) with five regular-season games remaining. The Tar Heels are riding the NCAA Tournament bubble in Jerry Palm's Bracketology and will need a strong finish to make the 68-team field.
For a team that returned four of five starters from a Final Four run, it's a stunning predicament underscored by an 0-9 record in Quad 1 games. The Tar Heels began the season ranked No. 1 in the AP Top 25 before showing some early flaws during a streak of four straight nonconference losses. However, it seemed like a forgone conclusion that a blue blood with such lofty expectations would figure things out.
The Tar Heels did win 10 of 12 games between December and January to reach 15-6 (7-3) entering February, but the ensuing collapse has been swift. Last season's squad also found itself teetering on the bubble in mid-February before closing the season with five straight wins to build momentum for a deep postseason run.
Is UNC in for a similar late-season turnaround in 2023? For this week's edition of the Dribble Handoff, our writers are offering their projections for how the rest of North Carolina's season will play out.
UNC will make tourney without a sweat
- Predicted conference record: 12-8
- NCAA Tournament prediction: No. 9 seed
North Carolina has been wildly disappointing this season — arguably the most disappointing team in the country considering the Tar Heels were, as you know, No. 1 in the preseason Associated Press Top 25 poll. That acknowledged, it remains in position to make the 2023 NCAA Tournament. For what it's worth, I still think the Tar Heels will do it, in part because they should be favored in four of their final five regular-season games. In other words, North Carolina just has to take care of business from this point forward.
The Tar Heels can't undo what's done — but the good news is that they don't have to. They just have to perform to expectations from this point forward, and that should be good enough to keep them on the right side of the bubble. North Carolina has to split its Quadrant 1 opportunities at NC State and at home against Virginia. It also has to beat Notre Dame and Florida State on the road, and then close with a win at home over Duke. Do that, and the Tar Heels will enter the ACC Tournament in good shape. (The Duke game could develop into a third Q1 opportunity if the Blue Devils, currently 33rd, move inside the top 30 of the NET.
Would I bet my 401K on UNC getting there? Not quite, but the Tar Heels are different from most other disappointing teams in that body of work isn't littered with awful losses. Only one falls outside of Quadrant 1, and that is a Q2 loss to a Pitt team that's first place in the ACC. UNC also has zero losses to sub-75 NET teams. What that suggests is that the Notre Dame and Florida State games should present few issues. It could just come down to this: Can the Tar Heels go 2-1 against NC State, Virginia and Duke with two of those three games at home? I think they can. And if they do, they'll be fine. -- Gary Parrish
Shaky Heels feeling good on Selection Sunday
- Predicted conference record: 11-9
- NCAA Tournament prediction: No. 11 seed
I've got UNC finishing 11-9 in a down ACC but think the Tar Heels' record on Selection Sunday will be 21-13. They'll reach the ACC semis, at minimum, and will absolutely be dancing in that scenario. If the wins are good enough, it even avoids getting shipped to Dayton. But I say this one with thing in mind: Carolina plays at NC State on Sunday. It will be the latest in a long line of Quad 1 opportunities. If it doesn't win that game, hope is all but extinguished. If we get to that point, the Tar Heels will go down as one of the more disappointing teams in college hoops history.
After all, a preseason No. 1 has never failed to reach the Big Dance. UNC has little room for error and a lot of ground to make up. -- Matt Norlander
UNC sneaks into tourney as bubble team
- Predicted conference record: 11-9
- NCAA Tournament prediction: No. 10 seed
The top of the résumé for Carolina is the most worrisome part of its prospects moving forward. It no longer has a Quad 1 win thanks to Ohio State finally dropping to a Quad 2 team. As Jerry Palm noted this wee, that effectively eliminates the Tar Heels from the tourney based on historical data if that holds. The last team to get into the field with a track record that bad in Quad 1 games (in at least six opportunities) was Oklahoma in 1994. The Sooners were winless in Quad 1 chances, though that came decades before the introduction of the NET.
The silver lining is that while UNC has not capitalized on its big opportunities with marquee wins, it has also not smeared its own resume with bad losses.
"It's a very blah résumé," Palm said earlier this week. "Carolina doesn't have the one good win, but it doesn't shoot itself in the foot. It's been awhile since a team went winless in Quad 1 and still made the NCAA Tournament. But this year? There's a lot lacking here."
UNC can get to 11 wins in league play, which should be enough to get it into the field. Based on how the landscape stands now, it needs at least one, maybe two of those wins to be against Quad 1 teams. If it can go 2-1 in upcoming games against NC State, Virginia and Duke, then handle business on the road against Notre Dame and Florida State, then I think it gets in as a 10 seed. It might be sitting square on the bubble even into the conference tournament, but it can salvage its season with a good win or two over the final few weeks. -- Kyle Boone
North Carolina goes to NIT
- Predicted conference record: 10-10
- Postseason prediction: NIT
North Carolina rode the momentum of a historic rivalry win at Duke in coach Mike Krzyzewski's last home game as coach into the postseason last year. No such season-changing opportunity is available to the Tar Heels this time. While North Carolina hosts Duke to close the regular season, the stakes won't be nearly as high. There is no guarantee that it will even be a Quad 1 game for North Carolina considering the game's location and Duke hovering at No. 33 in the NET.
It's like last season's late turnaround reduced UNC's sense of urgency to figure things out this season, but waiting around for another last-minute revival is going to leave the Tar Heels on the wrong side of the bubble. This team has no identity, no chemistry and no depth. It also does not have Brady Manek hitting corner 3-pointers. UNC is 339th in 3-point shooting percentage at 29.9% and isn't good enough defensively to mask that deficiency. The Tar Heels are tracking for an early exit from the NIT. -- David Cobb