What impact does UNC losing to Duke have on the eventual NCAA Tournament seeding?
Since we live in an instant information age with mock brackets being produced every other day and RPI rankings that change by the hour in some cases, the speculation runs pretty hot concerning who will be the #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Among the various storylines attached to the UNC-Duke game was how this game would impact the selection of either team as a #1 seed, especially in the East Regional which would be a Raleigh-Charlotte path to the Final Four. Since Duke won, they have been slated as having the “inside track” to the top seed in the East basically relegating UNC to the #2 seed. Let me say that this would only be true if the tournament started today. The truth of the matter is, based on history the Wednesday game actually did not mean that much of all.
First of all, because Ty Lawson did not play, the game on Wednesday actually meant more to Duke than it did UNC. Why? Because a Duke loss to a UNC team missing Ty Lawson would draw more attention from the committee than a UNC team without Lawson losing to Duke. The Blue Devils losing to a Lawson-less UNC team would be more damaging to Duke since it is perceived they would be playing a short handed Tar Heel squad. Conversely, because UNC is short handed it can be argued that Duke maintained the status quo by winning. In others words Duke beating UNC only elevates them slightly above UNC based on the head-to-head victory but even that win is tempered by the fact UNC was missing a vital cog.
Secondly, there is boatload of evidence that the committee is more interested in the second Duke-UNC game and beyond that extremely interested in the result of the ACC Tournament. In 1991, UNC was swept by Duke in the regular season but beat the Devils in the ACC Championship by 20+. End result: UNC is seeded #1 in the East and Duke is sent to the Midwest as a #2. During the 1997 season UNC finished tied for second with Wake Forest at 11-5 one game behind Duke. UNC beat the Devils in the season finale after losing the first game to them. The Heels win the ACC Tournament after Duke is beaten in the quarterfinals. The result is UNC gets the #1 in the East and Duke is #2 in the Midwest. In 1998, UNC wins the first game at Chapel Hill, loses to NC State along the way and then drops a game at Cameron to finish 13-3 in the ACC, two games behind 15-1 Duke. UNC then wins the ACC title beating Duke by 15 and the committee makes both teams #1 seeds but gives UNC the favorable East Regional which went through Greensboro. Duke was forced to play in Tampa and lost to Kentucky. The 2001 season saw UNC beat Duke in the first game but the Devils win in Chapel Hill and win the ACC Tournament. The result was a #1 seed for Duke and UNC slated at #2. In 2005, UNC loses to Duke the first time and wins the second time to win the ACC regular season. Duke finishes 3rd at 11-5 behind 13-3 Wake Forest. After Wake loses to NCSU and UNC loses in the semifinals to Geogia Tech, Duke wins the ACC Tournament. Both teams ends up with #1 seeds with UNC getting the favorable regional. And last season UNC finishes tied for first with UVa but snags a #1 seed because it ends up winning the ACC Tournament.
The bottom line is, the first game means nothing to the committee. It does, in some respects, reduce the margin of error for one team. However, if the committee is stuck trying to decided between UNC or Duke for a single #1 seed(which is the likely scenario) what happens in the second game in addition to the ACC Tournament matters. For UNC, the path to the #1 seed in the East goes like this: Don’t lose again. Well, that is a little simplistic. I think UNC has to win the game at Cameron on March 8th. And if UNC goes into their full strength and wins, it not only trumps the first loss but completely devalues it altogether since UNC will have proven they are the better team with Lawson playing. If that happens then UNC only needs to do better than Duke at the ACC Tournament. So if Duke loses on Saturday, UNC needs to make it to Sunday. If they both lose on Saturday, then I think UNC still gets an edge based on the previous week’s win but there is also a chance they both end up #2 seeds if that happens. Then again the simplest of all scenarios is if they meet in the ACC Championship, the winner gets the #1 seed in the East while the loser hopes someone else has stumbled enough to have the committee feeling generous enough to award the ACC a second #1 seed. Since there is zero ACC representation on the committee this season, that does not seem likely to happen.
So there it is. UNC still controls it’s own destiny and it would be immensely helpful if Duke could lose another game or two along the way. That does not seem likely but then again, one has to believe Duke is due to hit a cold stretch of shooting like the one they had going into and coming out of their 16 day break around Christmas. UNC needs to get Lawson healthy and spend the next seven game meshing as a cohesive playing unit before taking on Duke again. It was 1982 the last time a Raleigh-Charlotte path to the Final Four was out there for the taking and it would be great if the Heels could start and finish that same path they way they did 26 years ago.