It’s not what you know, it’s who you know. On the face of it, it seemed a little surprising that North Carolina, a ten-loss team, not only got a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament but the highest No. 2 seed, making the 10th-ranked (in the polls) Tar Heels the fifth-best team in the country by the selection committee’s lights. They outranked 26-7 and ninth-ranked Duke — whom they beat two out of three times, so no huge surprise — as well as Cincinnati (30-4, No. 6 in the polls), Purdue (28-6, No. 11), and Michigan State (29-4, No. 5). The Spartans, who drubbed UNC in the PK80 invitational tournament in November, were the Big 10 regular season champions, yet were awarded just a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament.
The explanation for this apparent confusion is derived from so-called “Quadrant 1” performance. The NCAA has more precisely codified wins this season. The Quadrant system rewards teams for beating top-30 opponents (by RPI) at home, top-50 teams at neutral sites, and top-75 teams on the road. (One can quibble with the RPI itself, but there has to be a baseline somewhere, and it’s not as if the RPI rankings are an abomination.) Those are all considered Quadrant 1 wins, and North Carolina not only has the most in the NCAA (14), they’ve played the most Quadrant 1 teams (22), by far, in the country. That’s why they got a cookie from the committee, whose priorities are quite clear: as often as you can, play good teams, especially away from home. A 14-8 overall Quadrant 1 record is nowhere near as dominant as Virginia’s 12-1, but it’s far better than Michigan State’s 3-4. (Duke finished 6-5 in Quadrant 1 games.) Carolina was rewarded for sheer quantity, which actually harmonizes with the program’s overall strengths: their current three-year run of high-level play has been fueled largely by how many extra shots their offensive rebounds provide them, and by players whose quality owes largely to staying around for three or four years.
The Tar Heels were also rewarded for something they had no control over: the ACC regular season schedule, which required them to run a very tough gauntlet, much tougher than Duke’s. While the Blue Devils were beating up on both Pittsburgh and Wake Forest twice each, UNC had to play Clemson twice, N.C. State twice, and Notre Dame twice. Their lone games against Florida State, Louisville, Syracuse, and Virginia were all on the road. Carolina got extra Quadrant 1 points just by showing up.
An outcome of this math can be measured in distance: UNC only has to drive down to Charlotte for the tournament’s first weekend. They’ll take on No. 15 seed and Atlantic Sun champion Lipscomb in the first round. It’s the Bisons’ first ever tournament appearance. Why they’re called the Bisons is beyond me, since Lipscomb is in Nashville. (But then, why are any sports teams in America called the Tigers?) If UNC manages to run the Bisons off the cliff — and hey, the Ken Pomeroy metrics rank Lipscomb eight spots lower than Wofford, so the Tar Heels definitely have a chance — they’ll meet the winner of Texas A&M and Providence in the second round. For what it’s worth, the Tar Heels beat Providence in the second round of the tournament two years ago, in Raleigh, on the way to the NCAA championship game against Villanova.
Carolina fans may wince at the memory of that heartbreaker, but Carolina has a decent shot to advance to what would be their third straight Final Four. That would put them in rarefied air. It’s only happened eleven times — once by Carolina themselves, back in the late sixties, when UCLA was setting a never-to-broken record by appearing in ten straight Final Fours. (Duke made it to five in a row from 1988-1992.) To achieve that threepeat, Carolina has the easiest path of any No. 2 seed, as their overall rating affords them. The No. 1 seed in the West Region, where UNC was placed, is Xavier. Along the way, UNC would probably have to get past either Michigan, whom they beat earlier this season in Chapel Hill, or Houston, a slightly underappreciated and very good team that can both score and defend. (To me, that’s the scary matchup.) Still, all the way up to the regional final, it’s hard not to look at the bracket and conclude that UNC is probably the team you’d take. Then it’s a one-game toss-up.
Duke, meanwhile, is off to Pittsburgh as the No. 2 seed in the Midwest Region. They’ll play Iona in the first round, followed by the winner of Rhode Island and Oklahoma. That means there’s already a little drama awaiting the Blue Devils in the second round. Tenth-seeded Oklahoma has not played well lately, but they boast Trae Young, the wispy star guard, a lottery pick this coming June and the sort of player who can score forty points on any given night. If he has a career game — and players like Young tend to love bright-spotlight moments like an underdog March matchup against a team like Duke — the Blue Devils could find themselves in the soup. (You might recall what happened when they drew Derrick Williams and Arizona in the 2011 tournament.) Seventh-seeded Rhode Island — which wears Carolina Blue and is called the Rams — is coached by Danny Hurley, Duke legend Bobby’s brother. (An aside: Rhode Island’s loss in the Atlantic Ten tournament final had a domino effect of jeopardizing the bubbly at-large bid hopes of Arizona State, which is coached by… Bobby Hurley. Arizona State squeaked in as a First Four probation pick, and you should check out Danny’s reaction when his fear that he’d cost his brother a bid went unrealized.)
Arizona State’s play-in game — against Syracuse, an ACC bid I wish had been swapped out for Notre Dame, a much more interesting and fun team to watch, with perhaps the ACC’s most likable coach — happens to be in Duke’s half of the Midwest Region bracket, making it possible for the Blue Devils to play both Hurleys’ teams in consecutive tournament games. (Cue committee-has-a-sense-humor chorus.) That won’t happen, though, because Arizona State would have to beat not only Syracuse and its sticky 2-3 zone but then none other than the fearsome Michigan State Spartans — who, are, once again, the trendy pick to win the tournament, as it seems they are every year. The Spartans are the No. 3 seed in Duke’s region. Duke beat Michigan State earlier this year behind a career night from hot-and-cold Grayson Allen, but that was nearly four months ago. A third-round rematch would be a potential powerhouse showdown in the round of 16, and it could be followed by Duke facing No. 1 seed Kansas in the regional final in Omaha. If the Blue Devils are going to the Final Four, they’ll have to earn it pretty much from the start. Even Iona can’t be discounted, if for no other reason than that the ghosts of Lehigh and Mercer are still perhaps hanging over Duke.
So with all that out of the way, where are our two teams now as they enter the tournament?
Duke plays at the highest level country, except when they don’t. That’s a way of saying that they’re a freshman-dominated team. They looked disengaged and outplayed in losing to Virginia Tech two weeks ago; looked terrifyingly great in storming back to beat UNC in their next game; had no trouble running away from Notre Dame in their first ACC Tournament game; and then let UNC slap them silly until a final, desperate rally in the last five minutes of the game almost produced another sensational comeback. You just never quite know with this team. At the level of efficiency and metrics there’s lots to love. Duke has the country’s third-best offense and seventh-best defense, per Pomeroy. They’ve got the best player in the country, in my opinion, and when Marvin Bagley III gets going he’s close to unstoppable. But they have long stretches of losing focus, and the solution Mike Krzyzewski has come with at guard doesn’t entirely work. Grayson Allen runs the show, but he isn’t a natural point guard, and no real priority seems to be given to feeding the ball to the post, where Bagley and Wendell Carter, Jr. ought to be primary options. It amazes me how many possessions go by without Bagley or Carter getting the ball anywhere near decent scoring position, if at all (although you could argue that anywhere Bagley gets the ball puts him in decent position to score). Krzyzewski’s guard-focused style is long practiced, of course, and he loves Allen; but it does seem like he runs the risk of living and dying by his lone senior.
As for Carolina, they’ve got the friendliest path to the Final Four of any No. 2 seed. They’ve been playing well, even in their loss to Virginia in the ACC Tournament final. Unlike Duke, Carolina is pretty predictable out there on the floor. They tend to win or lose based on varying degrees of how well they do the things they always do (or try to do). In their win over Duke in the semifinals, they took seventeen more shots than the Blue Devils did by dint of offensive rebounds and points off turnovers. Against Virginia, those advantages weren’t there. They’re playing about at their peak — also unlike Duke, a team that could get a lot better in these last six games — but the question is whether UNC’s peak is high enough to take them back to the national championship. Probably not, but that a team that lost to Wofford at home this season and started the conference schedule 5-5 has set itself up for a decent shot at the Final Four may be reward enough.
The Tobacconist is unsure whether he will be back this season. He has enjoyed it tremendously — probably more than he’s enjoyed any season in recent memory, and that includes numerous Final Fours and championships by our two local teams in this decade. (This is just a reminder that either Duke or Carolina has been in the Final Four in six of the last ten seasons; had Kendall Marshall not fractured his wrist against Creighton in 2012, it’d almost surely be seven.) The sheer coltish excitement of watching Duke’s freshmen learn on the job — not to mention Bagley’s breathtaking ability, Carter’s great old-man post defense, Gary Trent, Jr.s’ sweet shooting — and the subtler simmer of UNC’s development have yielded all kinds of rewards, including three games against one another this season, all of them entertaining. No one reads these posts, I barely edit them. They’re just to express a personal joy in watching the local college basketball, which is the greatest college basketball in the world.
But for me March Madness is closer to March Sadness. The season is coming to an end, and even though there’s baseball, our chance to watch college basketball players is by definition limited. Grayson Allen, Joel Berry, and Theo Pinson have built tremendous legacies around here, and it’s hard to say goodbye to these kids who have played so hard for so many minutes, games and seasons — and who have been growing up, in their own different and tangled ways, before our eyes. And then there are the inevitable early exits by players like Bagley, leaving us to wonder what could have been had they stayed longer. There’s always a point in the season, usually right around the first Duke-UNC game in early February, when you feel as though it’s all just getting fully going, and then you realize how soon it’s all going to end. It has been a blue winter in more ways than one, and the Tobacconist feels fully saturated in the color, be it sky or midnight or some amalgamated shade. The NCAA Tournament is an awful lot of fun, but it’s also driven by unpredictability, unfairness, and bitterly quick ends to long work. It’s as hard to watch as it is fun. And it may be that between those opposed feelings, the best thing to do is to take it in quietly and let it speak for itself.
I leave you with a beautiful tune by the Pernice Brothers that I always associate with the end of winter and coming of spring. It’s called “The Weakest Shade of Blue.”