North Carolina was projected to be a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament after its 74-73 loss to Duke on Friday, according to ESPN bracket analyst Joe Lunardi’s projections early Saturday.
Lunardi previously had the Tar Heels as a No. 1 seed prior to Friday’s ACC semifinal game. The Tar Heels had two final shots to win before the buzzer sounded — Coby White’s jump shot and Nassir Little’s tip-in attempt — but came up short.
After Kentucky’s loss to Tennessee on Saturday in the semifinals of the SEC tournament, Lunardi updated his projections Saturday evening, and moved UNC back up to a No. 1 seed.
Friday night’s ACC semifinal game was the third time North Carolina and Duke played this season. North Carolina won the first two games and Duke won the third. Zion Williamson, the ACC player of the year, missed the first two games with a knee sprain but played in the third.
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In a conference call Wednesday, Lunardi said if Duke beat UNC, “then that almost counteracts the two losses which occurred largely without him.”
North Carolina (27-6), which has won 15 of its last 17 games, is currently ranked No. 7 in the latest NET rankings, which is the primary metric the selection committee will use when seeding teams on Selection Sunday.
Duke and Virginia currently seem to be a lock for No. 1 seeds. Many believe Kentucky or Tennessee has a shot. And Gonzaga, which lost in the West Coast Conference Championship game to Saint Mary’s, is also in consideration for a No. 1 seed.
Who the committee will select remains unclear. But many on North Carolina’s team believe they are deserving of a No. 1 seed.
“I think our resume speaks for itself and our play,” UNC freshman Coby White said. “I think we deserve a No. 1 seed, but it’s not up to us.”
The Tar Heels are 10-6 in “Quadrant 1” games this season. Of the top eight teams in the NET rankings, only No. 1 Virginia and No. 8 Michigan State have more, as of early Saturday.
The argument against North Carolina, and for Gonzaga is that while the Tar Heels beat the Zags 103-90 at home on Dec. 15, the Zags only lost three games all season. They were also the only team to beat Duke when the Blue Devils were at full strength.
The argument for Kentucky is the Wildcats won head-to-head against the Tar Heels 80-72 at a neutral site on Dec. 22. Kentucky is also 10-5 in Quadrant 1 games after its loss to Tennessee Saturday.
Tennessee, which has a 9-4 Quadrant 1 record, will play for the the SEC tournament championship on Sunday against Auburn.
North Carolina’s strength of schedule was fourth in the nation. Tennessee’s strength of schedule was 56th, Kentucky was 12th and Gonzaga was 46th.
“We’re not worried about it,” UNC senior Luke Maye said of the Tar Heels getting a No. 1 seed, “but I think the way we’ve played, the way we’ve come on here lately — they’re a great team,” he said of Duke. “They lost five games and they’ve got a lot of great players. For that to be such a close game, it just shows, in my opinion, we’re two of the best teams in the country. I think you should see that moving forward.”