If not for one play -- Duke freshman Austin Rivers' game-winning 3-pointer this month -- ESPN.com bracketologist Joe Lunardi said he would be projecting North Carolina as a top seed in the NCAA tournament right now.
As it is, the Tar Heels are likely going to need to win out, and get a little help, to earn one of the four slots.
“They absolutely have a chance, because they still have, arguably, the best talent in the country,’’ Lunardi said during a phone interview Thursday. “And in almost any game they play, they’re going to be the favorite because of that, with the exception being at Cameron [Indoor Stadium], at the end of the season.
"But I don’t think anybody thinks that North Carolina doesn’t have the best roster in the ACC, and it would be comparable to Syracuse and Kentucky nationally. Having said that, I think that by losing to Duke, they’ve made it problematic.”
Why? Because despite UNC’s 24-4 record and No. 7 ranking in both polls, the Tar Heels are only 2-4 against teams rated in the RPI 25, according to Lunardi’s InsideRPI Daily (Insider access required). By comparison, Kansas, Michigan State, Ohio State, Missouri and Duke -- the other contenders to join virtual locks Kentucky and Syracuse as No. 1 seeds -- all have winning records in that category.
“Michigan State, for instance, is 7-3, so it negates the fact that they lost to UNC a few months ago on a neutral floor, or a neutral boat,’’ he said, referring to the season-opening Carrier Classic.
It hasn’t helped UNC that the ACC has had a weak season. In normal seasons, wins against Maryland or Virginia Tech might have helped the Tar Heels more. But right now, only two teams besides UNC are in the RPI top 25. And it has lost to both (Duke and Florida State).
“For Carolina to not win out and get a 1 seed, four teams -- Kansas, Missouri, Michigan State and Ohio State -- also have to not win out,’’ Lunardi said. “And that, to me, seems unlikely.”
The best scenario for UNC is to sweep its last three regular season games -- at Virginia, vs. Maryland, at Duke -- and then to win the ACC tournament. “Carolina needs to be the No. 1, clear-cut dog in the ACC,” he said. (The Blue Devils, by contrast, could drop a game and still be a contender for a No. 1, Lunardi said, especially if they beat the Tar Heels again.)
If it wins its final games, UNC then “needs Kansas and Missouri [to] split, and be unsettled in the conference tournament, and for Michigan State and Ohio State to split, and be unsettled in that conference tournament.”
The Jayhawks face the Tigers in Lawrence on Saturday. The Spartans face the Buckeyes in East Lansing on March 4.
The most likely outcome right now, Lunardi said, is that the Big Ten and Big 12 champions will join Kentucky and Syracuse as No. 1 seeds, and Duke and UNC will end up with No. 2 seeds.
“But here’s the huge advantage that [the Tar Heels] have,’’ Lunardi said. “If they’re close, everybody’s going to remember what they thought about Carolina in October, November: ‘This is the overwhelming No. 1 team. They were a No. 1 seed in October, now they’re back.’ The human element, I don’t think we can discount it, but they have to put themselves in that position.”
And that Rivers shot has pushed them out of it, for now.
Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.