NC college teams make final push for postseason

The majority of teams in the state have something to play for

Shykeim Phillips and UNC Wilmington are one of five North Carolina teams currently projected to make the NCAA Tournament. (James Crisp / AP Photo)

It appears that college basketball in North Carolina may finally be getting over the pandemic.

Since COVID-19 wiped out the 2020 NCAA Tournament, the state has not seen more than three teams get bids for March Madness in any of the four post-pandemic tourneys. This from a state whose Tobacco Road had become synonymous with college basketball excellence.

In 2018, the West Region of the NCAA Tournament had three North Carolina teams — the second-seeded Tar Heels, No. 13 UNC Greensboro and No. 16 NC Central. And that was just a quarter of the entire NCAA field.

Now, the once mighty state is getting in as many teams as Iowa, which sent three to last year’s Big Dance.

This year, however, the detour signs and orange barrels have been removed, and the road to March appears to once again be routed through our state. With just over two weeks left to play in the regular season, four conferences have teams from North Carolina leading their standings. Ten of the 19 Division I schools in the state are in the top three in their respective conference standings, and 15 have records over .500.

As of press time, the most recent set of bracketology predictions has five programs from North Carolina getting bids to the NCAA Tournament, and a sixth is currently listed among the last four out.

Here’s a look at how the state shapes up before March arrives (records and KenPom rankings through the weekend):

19. NC A&T: The Aggies are one of the few have-nots among North Carolina basketball programs this year. They are just outside of the bottom 20 in the KenPom rankings, at No. 341 out of 363 teams. They opened the season with a nine-game losing streak and are currently riding a five-game skid. A&T is 7-20 overall, 5-9 in the CAA and 1-6 against other teams from the state.

18. Elon: The Phoenix are the only other team in the state in the 300s on KenPom. They currently come in at No. 312 at 12-15 overall and tied with A&T at 5-9 in the CAA. Elon has won back-to-back games, just their third winning streak of the season and just the second where both teams were Division I.

17. Campbell: The CAA is a meat grinder for in-state teams. Campbell is also near the bottom with a 5-9 conference mark — only two teams in the league are worse — and are 12-15 overall. KenPom has them just barely in the 200s at No. 295. They have two wins over Elon and are the only team in the state to lose to A&T, with a rematch pending to close the regular season.

16. Queens: The only other team in the state with a losing record, the Royals are 11-17 overall, 5-8 in the ASUN and No. 275 in KenPom. They have four wins against in-state teams, but they had to dig deep to do it, scheduling games with CarolinaU and Carolina Christian.

15. NC Central: One reason the state has been sending fewer teams to the NCAAs is that Central hasn’t been going. LeVelle Moton used to be one of the surest bets in the state to be playing in March, but the Eagles haven’t returned to the Dance since prepandemic days. At 13-10, 5-3 in the MEAC, they are tied for second place. ESPN knows that Moton has everyone right where he wants them and has the Eagles in the field despite a 266 KenPom rating.

14. Gardner-Webb: We move to another tier, as the Runnin’ Bulldogs are nearly 100 spots higher than Central in KenPom. At 13-14 overall and 8-4 in the Big South, they are in third place. They’ll need to win the conference tourney to get a bid, however.

13. East Carolina: Now things start to get crowded. The Pirates are 14-12, 7-6 in the AAC and looking to win the conference tourney to get a bid. They’ve won three straight and five of seven to build up a head of steam.

12. UNC Asheville: At 153 in KenPom, the Bulldogs are six spots above ECU despite a much better-looking record. UNCA is 19-9 and 11-2 in the Big South, in a tie for first place.

11. UNC Greensboro: A few spots above UNCA, the Spartans are 19-8, 10-4 and in second place in the SoCon. They lost back-to-back games for just the second time this year a week ago but have rebounded with two wins in a row.

10. Western Carolina: The Catamounts are two games behind UNCG in the SoCon standings at 8-6, 19-8 overall, but they rank more than a dozen notches higher in KenPom thanks to a strong nonconference performance that includes wins over Notre Dame and UNC Asheville.

9. High Point: The Panthers are tied with UNC Asheville for the Big South lead and the two powerhouses have split their regular season meetings, but ESPN is picking them to get the sole bid from the conference. High Point is 22-6, 11-2 in conference, although they’ve split their last four games following a 12-game win streak.

8. Davidson: The Wildcats are 14-11 but just 4-8 in the A-10 and in the bottom five. A respectable nonconference schedule that includes wins over Maryland and Charlotte gives hope for a March rally.

7. UNC Wilmington: The eighth North Carolina team in the KenPom 100s, the Seahawks are at 105 with a 19-7 record, 10-4 and in second place in the CAA. ESPN has them winning the conference tourney and getting a bid. They just saw their second five-game conference win streak of the new year end.

6 Charlotte: The 49ers are 17-8, 11-2 in the AAC and in the top 100 in KenPom at 99. They’re a game out of first place and have won three straight and 11 of 12.

5. Appalachian State: The only other non-ACC team ESPN is putting in the field, the Mountaineers are in first place in the Sun Belt at 22-5, 12-2. They’ve also won three in a row and 11 of 12.

4. NC State: The Wolfpack are 16-9, 8-6 in the ACC and No. 72 in KenPom. They’re on the wrong side of the NCAA Bubble right now, but NC State closes the season with games at UNC, against Duke and at Pitt, all Quad 1 games. So the Wolfpack could be playing significant games in the ACC Tournament with a late-season run.

3. Wake Forest: The Deacs are 46 spots higher in KenPom than the Wolfpack despite an identical 16-9, 8-6 record. ESPN has them as one of the first four out of the latest projections. They also have three Quad 1 games left on the schedule, against Duke, Clemson and at Virginia Tech.

2. Duke: The Blue Devils have been overlooked at times this year, but as March approaches, they are 20-5, 11-3 and in second place in the ACC and winners of four straight. Plus, Jared McCain appears to be exploding into a star down the stretch. Duke is projected as a No. 4 seed but could be moving up a line if they continue to win.

1. UNC: They’ve had inexplicable losses to Georgia Tech and Syracuse, but the Tar Heels are still the class of the ACC this year at 20-6, 12-3. They’ve been dropped to a No. 2 seed and will be looking to close strong to move up a line.