Three Things: UNC Hoops Notebook
1. Look, I know everyone is panicking about the end of the world today, but there's a much more serious issue at hand: Carolina's NCAA Tournament resume is startlingly weak at this point in the season. The Tar Heel RPI as of December 20 is 64th in the country. Well, OK, that's not necessarily a dire situation, because ACC games against highly ranked teams will bring that ranking up, win or lose. But here's the problem: UNC's best wins, as of right now, are on the road at Long Beach State (115th in the RPI) and at home against ECU (112th). Yes, a game that looked like a favor for Jeff Lebo is right now the second-best credential on the Tar Heel postseason application. According to Warren Nolan, the only other teams in the RPI top 60 without at least one top 100 RPI win are Alabama, LaSalle and UC-Santa Barbara. Playing the game at Long Beach on the way to Maui may turn out to be very important, because it provides a road win, which the RPI loves.
It's pretty simple: the home game against UNLV (16th in the RPI) on Dec. 29 is a must-win for Carolina's NCAA Tournament chances. Lose that one, and the Tar Heels might need as many as 11 wins in the ACC to make a strong case.
2. About that ACC schedule: there are currently three league teams in the top 10 of the RPI (Duke, State and Miami). Carolina has five games against those teams. Add in home-and-home series with Virginia, Florida State and Maryland, and the league slate looks very, very tough. How many wins against that schedule (remember, there are 18 league games this year) would get the Tar Heels into the NCAA Tournament? Would as few as nine do it, plus a win over UNLV? That would mean a very nervous Selection Sunday. It might take ten or more.
The great thing about the schedule, though, is that if Carolina is able to get some wins, there will be no doubting their credentials. Assuming the committee looks deep enough, this is a year when it's obvious the Tar Heels played the very best of the league, and they'll also have the benefit of having scheduled themselves some tough road games at Texas, Indiana and Long Beach.
3. Perusing the media guide led to some sobering stats about the first 11 games. But it was also a reminder that you're never as good as you think you are--or as bad as you think you are--in December. Let's take the 2010-11 team, which had a dramatic personnel makeover, out of the equation. The 2010 team rolled out to a 7-1 start before plummeting to earth in ACC play. The 2006 team was 6-2 on Dec. 21 and coming off a 15-point loss at Southern Cal. They were 11-5 on Jan. 25. They finished second in the league. The 2004 team was 8-1 at the end of 2003, but went 8-8 in the ACC and was erased in the NCAA Tournament second round--and that was a team with Sean May, Raymond Felton, Rashad McCants and Jawad Williams.
Looking back further, the possible crown prince of good starts turning ugly was the 2000-01 team, which began 21-2 before finishing 5-5 and falling to Penn State in the NCAA Tournament. The 1999 club started 8-0 and lost three of the last five, including (whispers) Weber State. And one of the most famous shots in Carolina history--Rick Fox's buzzer-beater against Oklahoma in the second round of the 1990 NCAA Tournament--obscures the fact that the season as a whole was a struggle, with Carolina finishing 21-13, losing three straight February ACC games, and falling in the ACC Tournament quarterfinals to Virginia. What do you remember more, the frustration of the regular season or the elation of King Rice's wacky midcourt high-step? Matter of fact, this seems like a great time to watch that play (plus a great vintage interview with Rick Fox):
"The game is over! The game is over! Carolina has upset number-one Oklahoma!" I vividly remember gleefully dancing around our living room in Cary with my dad when that shot caromed in off the backboard in Austin. It was a little more fun than Wednesday's trip to Texas.
Is this year's team certain to repeat any of the above turnarounds--either good or bad? Nope, and the next eight days leading up to the UNLV game will be important as Roy Williams sorts through his rotation and decides who ultimately has earned the right to play key minutes.