When the NCAA tournament field was announced a week ago, on Selection Sunday, you could have made the argument – and I did – that North Carolina, the top seed in the East Region, had the most difficult path of any No. 1 seed to reach the Final Four.
There was the potential game against Kentucky, the No. 4 seed, in the regional semifinals. Xavier, the No. 2 seed, and West Virginia, the No. 3, were lurking in the bottom half of the bracket.
And now, one week later, none of those teams remain.
The Tar Heels are in for a significant challenge against Indiana, the No. 5 seed, on Friday in the semifinals. That much is clear. And yet the East has opened up, too, and the Tar Heels are now even more of a Final Four favorite than they were a week ago.
Here’s how the bracket opened up for UNC: West Virginia lost in the first round against Stephen F. Austin, a No. 14 seed, in one of the most memorable upsets of the tournament. Then Indiana on Saturday beat Kentucky, which some considered a viable national title contender.
On Sunday night, seventh-seeded Wisconsin won at the buzzer against Xavier. In that game, Bronson Koenig made a baseline 3-pointer as time expired to give the Badgers the victory. Koenig’s shot will be remembered as one of the most dramatic moments of the tournament.
And so the East regional in Philadelphia is set: No. 1 UNC vs. No. 5 Indiana, and No. 6 Notre Dame, which knocked off Stephen F. Austin on a last-second tip-in, vs. No. 7 Wisconsin.
The three teams that stand between UNC and the Final Four are all formidable, and capable of beating the Tar Heels.
UNC already lost, after all, against Notre Dame during the regular season. Nonetheless, nobody thought a week ago that the highest seed UNC would need to defeat to get to the Final Four would be a No. 5.
But amid a line of upsets and buzzer-beaters, that’s the reality in the East. Not that it will be easy.
Indiana, which has won seven of its past eight games, is one of the best shooting teams in the country. Notre Dame presents matchup challenges (which the Tar Heels had little trouble with during their 78-47 victory in the ACC tournament). And Wisconsin, which beat UNC on its way to the national championship game a season ago, has remained one of the nation’s best defensive teams.
Still, UNC has a more welcoming road to Houston than appeared likely when the tournament began.