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Monday, March 18, 2013

Mysteries of the brackets: North Carolina schools face tough draws

Posted by on Mon, Mar 18, 2013 at 9:02 AM

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The state of North Carolina has placed five schools in the 68-team men's NCAA basketball tournament: Davidson, Duke, North Carolina, North Carolina A&T and North Carolina State.

The NCAA committee didn't exactly hand any of these schools a break. A&T has been forced to participate in what used to be known as the "play-in" game, now rebranded the "First Four." The First Four consists of four games, two involving teams like A&T that didn't win their league regular season but snuck in the field by winning their conference tournament, and two games involving the final four at-large teams admitted. The Aggies must get by Liberty, the only team with a losing record this year, champions of the Big South.

The Sagarin college basketball ratings make A&T (No. 242) a one-point favorite over Liberty (No. 260). The reward for winning would be a date with Louisville in what quite ridiculously is now called the "Second Round." Sagarin has Louisville as a 27-point favorite in such a matchup. The best team the Aggies have played this year is Cincinnati—a 54-point loss early on. Later A&T did play major conference teams Texas Tech and Seton Hall much closer, losing by 11 in each case.

Davidson's 14-seed is due to a weak schedule. But at 25-7, this Wildcat team knows how to shoot and how to win. Davidson hasn't lost since Jan. 14, and already has played Gonzaga and Duke reasonably close, losing by 14 and 17 points respectively. Sagarin makes Davidson out to be just a six-point underdog against Marquette, who probably wasn't thrilled to draw the Southern Conference outfit on the 14 line.

Then we have the local ACC teams. Despite finishing second in the ACC regular season, many projections last week had Duke as a likely 1-seed. The loss to Maryland in the first round of the ACC Tournament Friday ended those chances, and now the Blue Devils face a potentially challenging road to the Final Four. In the Sweet 16, 3-seed Michigan State could be waiting, and 1-seed Louisville could be there in the regional final (if they can get by A&T or Liberty, of course). The Spartans are as ever a bruising outfit that could cause Duke problems, and most people think Louisville is now playing the best ball in the nation.

But you never know what's going to happen along the way; perhaps upsets in the other side of the bracket will clear the way for Duke to make it to Atlanta without having to spring upsets of their own. The task this week is to get by Albany and either Creighton or Cincinnati. North Carolina faced Creighton in the round of 32 last year and some Tar Heel fans are still bitter about the foul that ended Kendall Marshall's season. Those same fans would surely put their bitterness aside and cheer on the Bluejays against the Blue Devils if the teams meet.

For what it's worth, Duke is 18 points better than Albany, according to Sagarin. Duke would be favored by just four over Creighton and six over Cincy in the second round.

North Carolina State needs to at least match its Sweet 16 run of a year ago to avert the sense that this season was an opportunity squandered. The Wolfpack have been given a tough row to hoe as an 8-seed, despite being ranked No. 25 by Sagarin. State plays Temple in the East region, with Indiana likely waiting in the wings in the second round.

The good news for NCSU is that Sagarin makes the Wolfpack a healthy four-point favorite over the A-10 Owls. Temple has quality wins over VCU and Syracuse, but lost to Duke by 23.

A good effort by State should see them into the second round, setting up an intriguing matchup with Indiana. The two schools met early in the 2011-12 season with the Hoosiers overturning a halftime deficit to prevail by 11. Sagarin makes Indiana out to be a six point favorite if the teams play this year.

This leaves us with North Carolina. The Tar Heels fell to an 8-seed despite being ranked No. 19 by Sagarin (and similarly in the RPI ratings), either due to lack of a signature win over an elite team or because CBS wants to market another Jayhawk-Tar Heel game, depending on your sense of how the committee process actually works.

In any case, the Heels have no choice but to get on with it. Sagarin makes Carolina out to be a three-point favorite over Villanova. Nova has had an up and down season but owns big wins over Louisville, Syracuse and Georgetown. They are not a great shooting team; the question of this game is going to be whether Carolina's potent offense can overcome Villanova's stingy defense (rated 24th nationally by Ken Pomeroy.)

Should Carolina win and should Kansas somehow manage to overcome Western Kentucky, strictly speaking Kansas would be a five-point favorite in the Third Round (Formerly Known as the Second Round).

That might seem manageable, but consider that the game would be played in Kansas City—and Sagarin's method adds four points on to the home team in making predictions. Really then, you're talking about Carolina trying to win as a nine-point underdog.

A tall order, but there is some precedent in recent history. The last two times Carolina made the tournament as an 8-seed—2000 and 1990—the Tar Heels knocked out a 1-seed (Stanford and Oklahoma, respectively) to advance to the Sweet 16.

If the Tar Heels can tap their shoes together three times and repeat that history, little girls across Kansas next Sunday night will be telling their dogs, "Toto, we're not in the NCAA Tournament anymore."

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