February 14, 2014
If the NCAA Tournament were to begin today, North Carolina would be amongst the 68 selected to put on its dancing shoes.
However, the Tar Heels better not lace those shoes up quite yet because their next five games will determine their fate.
This has not been the best of seasons in Chapel Hill on the court or off it. First came the NCAA investigations into the off-season actions of P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald.
Then came the losses to four teams with an RPI of 64 or lower, including a four-point loss to Alabama-Birmingham, which has an RPI of 151. Mix in a three-game losing streak in the middle of season and the Tar Heels' NCAA resume was showing enough blemishes, they didn't want to look at themselves in the mirror.
The only saving grace during the skid was one of the losses was at undefeated and top-ranked Syracuse. Following its 15-point loss at Virginia, UNC was looking more like a team solidly on the bubble than a lock to make the tournament.
Then UNC ripped off five straight wins and according to ESPN bracket guru Joe Lunardi improved itself from a No. 11 seed back on Jan. 13 to a No. 9 seed as of Thursday.
But this is before the Tar Heels begin their big adventure today in the Dean E. Smith Center against Pittsburgh. Over the next 12 days, the team will know if they will see their names revealed on Selection Sunday or relegated to the NIT because these five opponents have a combined record of 83-38.
After battling Pittsburgh, UNC will travel to Tallahassee to face Florida State, one of the last four teams in Lunardi's current bracket. Then comes the first of two clashes with arch-rival Duke. If that wasn't enough, UNC has to close out this rugged stretch with in-state foes Wake Forest and North Carolina State.
If Roy Williams and the Tar Heels are still standing on Feb. 26 in Raleigh, then they should have accomplished enough to be dancing on March 16.
However, anything less than a 3-2 mark over these next five contests could have the Tar Heels scrambling to knock off the Blue Devils in Durham or advancing to the ACC Tournament finals.
While UNC appears to be on the inside looking out, another team in the state is trying to claw its way in — N.C. State.
Even though Lunadri doesn't have the Wolfpack on his bracket, he has them quickly gaining ground to land themselves on the bubble.
N.C. State, just like UNC, has a difficult road ahead if it wants to make the NCAA Tournament. It still has games against Syracuse and Pittsburgh remaining as well as with tournament hopefuls Clemson and UNC.
If the Wolfpack can catch fire and post a 5-2 record to close out their regular season, it shouldn't surprise anyone to see them get a last-second invitational to the dance.
— Sports editor Shawn Stinson may be reached at 910-997-3111, ext. 14 or on Twitter @scgolfer.