UNC basketball: NCAA tournament 2023 bubble watch begins now

At the beginning of the season, North Carolina coach Hubert Davis tried to shield his players from the “outside noise” of praise from being the preseason No. 1 ranked team.

As the losses have piled up, that praise has evolved into criticism. But, as far as Davis is concerned, it falls into the same category.

Now, after Sunday’s road loss at N.C. State, Davis has a new concern to address with the Tar Heels: apathy.

If Selection Sunday were today, the Heels, in all likelihood, would not hear their name called.

CBS Sports’ Jerry Palm has the Heels last in the first four teams out in his latest bracketology update. Carolina is only included in the tournament on 43 of the 92 tournament projections as assembled by Bracketmatrix.com.

“We can be scarred and disappointed and upset, but we still have an opportunity to compete,” Davis said. “We still have an opportunity in time to become the team that I think we can become. Our guys have always gotten back up and always competed and always fought and even though that, at times, it is difficult, guys have always stepped up to the challenge and they’ll do it again.”

The Heels have a difficult task ahead, starting with Wednesday’s game at Notre Dame. Coupled with next Monday’s game at Florida State, neither of those teams are in a position to help Carolina solidify an at-large bid. But should it lose either game, it would all but assure the only way the Heels see the NCAA tournament is to win the ACC tournament and capture the league’s automatic bid.

Their two remaining home games against Virginia and Duke both present chances for UNC to earn Quad 1 wins in the NCAA’s NET rankings. But even under the best case scenario where the Heels win them both, with a only a 2-8 record in Quad 1, they’d still have to win a game, and more likely at least two, in the ACC tournament.

No repeating last year

As much as Carolina’s finish to last season has been brought up lately, there’s really not much of a comparison to the Tar Heels’ current reality.

Dawson Garcia’s departure and Brady Manek’s insertion into the starting lineup made the Heels a different team last year at this time. They made the adjustment and in February, although they were being viewed as a bubble team, they made tangible improvements as they headed to the post season.

There’s been no such shakeup to the lineup this season. The same team that had problems expanding second half leads early in the season — when it led both Iowa State and Alabama — showed itself in Sunday’s loss to N.C. State.

Through 27 games last year the Heels held a 19-8 record and were 11-5 in the ACC. One year ago today, their NET ranking was No. 43. Over the same span this year, UNC is 16-11 with an 8-8 conference mark and a NET of No. 48.

NET worth

The NET is just one metric that the NCAA tournament committee will use when determining at-large bids and seeding. So there isn’t exactly a ranking that would guarantee Carolina receives a bid.

Last season, Wake Forest finished 48 in the NET prior to Selection Sunday and did not make the tournament. Miami was ranked 62 in the NET and not only made the tournament, the Hurricanes advanced to their first ever Elite Eight.

The difference between the teams is that the Canes were 4-3 in Quad 1 games and only 5-0 in Quad 4, while the Deacs were 1-4 in Quad 1 and won all nine of their Quad 4 games. Wake’s schedule came into question, which hurt its chances.

Carolina is currently looking like it could align more with Notre Dame from last season. The Fighting Irish got one of the last at-large bids and found themselves playing in Dayton in First Four games as an 11 seed.

Notre Dame had a 21-10 record and were No. 53 in the final NET prior to tournament selection. The Irish finished just 2-8 in Quad 1 games.

Carolina still has a path to reach the NCAA tournament, however narrow it might be. But the question for the Heels is if they’re still motivated enough to seek it.

How they stack up

Here’s how the Heels compare to other bubble teams:

UNC (16-11)

NET: 48

Records vs Quad 1: 0-8 vs Q2: 5-3 vs Q3: 5-0 vs Q4: 6-0

Best wins: NC State (36), College of Charleston (52)

Bad losses: None

Current trend: Lost five of last six

Mississippi State (18-9)

NET: 43

Records vs Q1: 3-5 Q2: 4-4 Q3: 2-0 Q4: 9-0

Best wins: Marquette (14), TCU (48), at Arkansas (19)

Bad losses: at Georgia (131)

Current trend: Won six of last seven

New Mexico (20-7)

NET: 47

Records vs Q1: 3-2 Q2: 3-1 Q3: 8-3 Q4: 5-1

Best wins: St. Mary’s (7), San Diego State (17)

Bad losses: at Air Force (150), Wyoming (182)

Current trend: Lost four of last five

USC (19-8)

NET: 56

Records vs Q1: 3-5 Q2: 5-1 Q3: 6-1 Q4: 5-1

Best wins: UCLA (4), Auburn (30)

Bad losses: Florida Gulf Coast (166), Oregon State (219)

Current trend: Won six of last eight

Wisconsin (15-11)

NET: 76

Records vs Q1: 5-7 Q2: 4-3 Q3: 1-1 Q4: 5-0

Best wins: Marquette (14), Maryland (24), Iowa (42)

Bad losses: at Nebraska (92)

Current trend: Lost three of last five

Wake Forest (17-10)

NET: 77

Records vs Q1: 1-6 Q2: 4-2 Q3: 4-2 Q4: 8-0

Best wins: Duke (26), UNC (48)

Bad losses: Loyola Marymount (103), LSU (158)

Current trend: Won three of last four

Clemson (19-8)

NET: 81

Records vs Q1: 3-2 Q2: 3-2 Q3: 5-1 Q4: 8-3

Best wins: Duke (26), NC State (36), at Pitt (50), at Virginia Tech (63)

Bad losses: South Carolina (242), Loyola Chicago (266), Louisville (308)

Current trend: Lost four of last five

C.L. Brown covers the University of North Carolina for The News & Observer. Brown brings more than two decades of reporting experience including stints as the beat writer on Indiana University and the University of Louisville. After a long stay at the Louisville Courier-Journal, where he earned an APSE award, he’s had stops at ESPN.com, The Athletic and even tried his hand at running his own website, clbrownhoops.com.

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