UNC Basketball: NCAA Tournament still possible for Tar Heels?

CHAPEL HILL, NORTH CAROLINA - JANUARY 25: Brandon Robinson #4 of the North Carolina Tar Heels reacts after a play against the Miami (Fl) Hurricanes during their game at Dean Smith Center on January 25, 2020 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
CHAPEL HILL, NORTH CAROLINA - JANUARY 25: Brandon Robinson #4 of the North Carolina Tar Heels reacts after a play against the Miami (Fl) Hurricanes during their game at Dean Smith Center on January 25, 2020 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images) /

The UNC basketball program got off to an unimaginably rough start this season, but is an appearance in the 2020 NCAA Tournament still a possibility?

The North Carolina Tar Heels won six of their first seven games to start the 2019-20 college basketball season, including a victory over the No. 11 Oregon Ducks. Back-to-back losses to Ohio State and Virginia followed, though, as did an injury to the Tar Heels’ star freshman point guard and leading scorer Cole Anthony.

Two consecutive losses turned into four, and despite the fact that three of those four defeats came at the hands of ranked opponents, the Tar Heels were sitting at just 6-5 after 11 games. That’s when things really got bad.

It was determined that Anthony would need arthroscopic surgery to repair a partially torn meniscus in his right knee, and a recovery process of at least four to six weeks was expected. It was right around the same time that junior forward Sterling Manley underwent another surgery on his ailing knees, one that would keep him out of the Tar Heels’ lineup for the remainder of the season. Anthony’s absence left a trio of inexperienced guards, junior K.J. Smith, and freshmen Jeremiah Francis and Anthony Harris, to take over the majority of duties in the UNC back court.

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The Tar Heels did win a pair of games against UCLA and Yale, but those weren’t incredibly reassuring victories. The Bruins are currently just 10-10, and have lost all three games they’ve played against ranked opponents this season. And Yale is a team that North Carolina should always beat, particularly at home, where they won by just three points.

Things only got worse when Harris tore his ACL in a late-game drive to the bucket against the Bulldogs, ending his freshman campaign almost as soon as it got started — he played just 60 minutes over five appearances. Thus, the North Carolina back court had become even smaller. So, too, did the team’s margin for error; something that would become very evident over the next few weeks.

After picking up his 879th career victory against Yale, a win that tied him with his mentor, former UNC head coach Dean Smith, Roy Williams wouldn’t break the tie for the better part of a month. The Tar Heels lost five consecutive games — all to ACC opponents — including the program’s first ever home loss to the Clemson Tigers. As if that three-point overtime defeat wasn’t demoralizing enough, the Tar Heels got blown out by Pittsburgh, and then lost a double-overtime game that they should have won against Virginia Tech.

Finally, North Carolina got back on track against Miami. A 23-point win over the Hurricanes, who were missing their top two scorers, gave the Tar Heels their first ACC victory in the last seven tries, and Williams his 880th victory. The Tar Heels then took their momentum into a road game against rival NC State, and beat a 14-6 Wolfpack team that was hungry for a victory over their most hated foe.

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That win got the Carolina faithful thinking, and perhaps, getting a bit ahead of themselves. Could the Tar Heels make a run this season, and somehow make the NCAA Tournament in March without having to win the ACC Tournament? Well, according to ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi, yes.

After the Tar Heels’ win over the Wolfpack on Monday night, Lunardi was asked about a scenario involving wins over Duke, Florida State and Louisville that would potentially get the Tar Heels into postseason play. Lunardi’s opinion gives credence to the UNC fans getting their hopes up after a pair of wins that got their team to .500 on the season.

But let’s examine this notion just a bit further. The Tar Heels definitely have some ‘bad losses’ on their resume this season, particularly in a year that the Atlantic Coast Conference isn’t as competitive as it normally is. They’ve really only got one marquee win (Oregon), but there are several opportunities to increase that number.

With upcoming games against Duke (twice), Florida State, Louisville, Virginia and Syracuse, if North Carolina could finish the conference season with an above-.500 record, and wins in three or four of those contests, their resume becomes much stronger. We also know how much the NCAA committee looks at momentum going into the tournament, as well as injuries that teams sustained throughout the season. North Carolina has missed more than 60 games this season among all of their injured players, and the Cole Anthony injury would weigh heavily in that argument.

Look, I’m not saying that it’s going to happen. I’m not even saying that it’s likely. Chances are, it doesn’t pan out that way. However, two straight wins and the really promising progression of Garrison Brooks and Brandon Robinson are enough to hang some hopes on; especially when football season is still seven month away.

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