North Carolina is a No. 1 seed after all, and the Tar Heels will play 16th seed Iona at approximately 9:20 p.m. Friday on TNT in their first game of the NCAA tournament in the Midwest Region.
North Carolina has been selected as a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament a record 17 times, and fifth time in the last 10 years. The Tar Heels were last a No. 1 seed in 2017, which was also the year they won a national championship.
After the Tar Heels’ 74-73 loss to Duke in the semifinals of the ACC tournament, it was not clear whether they would be a No. 1 seed. But Kentucky lost in the semifinals of the SEC tournament to Tennessee on Saturday, which later lost in the finals on Sunday to Auburn by 20. Both Kentucky — which is in the Midwest Region, too — and Tennessee were named No. 2 seeds.
North Carolina (27-6) earned the third overall No. 1 seed because of its strength of schedule and the way the Tar Heels finished in the ACC. The Tar Heels, which had the fourth toughest strength of schedule, finished the regular season with a 10-6 record in “Quadrant 1” games. They finished 6-0 in “Quadrant 2” games.
North Carolina began the regular season with a 12-4 record, which included a 21-point loss to Louisville at home. That loss, players say, helped turn around the Tar Heels’ season. They finished strong, winning 15 of their last 17 games and a share of the ACC regular season title.
North Carolina’s first game of the tournament against Iona will be in Columbus, Ohio. If the Tar Heels were to advance past Iona and their second-round game, they would play in Kansas City.
North Carolina is playing in the Midwest Regional for the first time since 2012, when it reached the Elite Eight in St. Louis.
Iona finished its season with a 17-15 record. The Gaels received an automatic bid after beating Monmouth 81-60 in the MAAC tournament finals.
If North Carolina gets past Iona, the Tar Heels would face the winner of No. 8 seed Utah State and No. 9 seed Washington.
“We have to respect everyone and fear no one,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “We have to be ready to play the first day. If you play your tail off the first day, perhaps they’ll let you stay around and play somebody else.”
There are a couple of familiar teams in the Midwest Region bracket.
Kentucky is a No. 2 seed and the Tar Heels could face the Wildcats if both teams advance to the Elite Eight. North Carolina lost to Kentucky 80-72 on Dec. 22.
North Carolina also could again face Wofford, a No. 7 seed in the Midwest Region. UNC beat Wofford 78-67 on the road in the season opener on Nov. 6. If UNC and Wofford were to play again, both teams would play in the Elite Eight.
Kansas is also in the Midwest as a No. 4 seed. North Carolina coach Roy Williams was head coach at Kansas from 1988 to 2003 before accepting the head coaching job at North Carolina. The two teams could potentially meet in the Sweet 16.
Potential to win
North Carolina will enter the NCAA tournament with a chip on its shoulder. Last season, the second-seeded Tar Heels lost in the second round to Texas A&M 86-65 in Charlotte, which left the Tar Heels feeling embarrassed and the season incomplete.
The Aggies used their size advantage and dominated. The Tar Heels also struggled from 3, shooting only 19 percent.
But this year there’s a different feel, the returning players say. The UNC bigs are more experienced. And while they struggled against Duke on Friday from 3, the Tar Heels remain a dangerous 3-point shooting team.
UNC senior Cam Johnson, who was voted first-team All-ACC, is shooting 47 percent from 3 this season. Freshman guard Coby White, who was voted second-team All-ACC, made 76 3-pointers and is shooting 36 percent from 3.
Junior guard Brandon Robinson said he believes the Tar Heels are primed to win a national championship. He said the players often debate whether the current team is better than the 2017 UNC team that won an NCAA title.
“I think we’re just like that team,” Robinson said. “We’re deep and we’re good. I know we can win it.”
Johnson said this NCAA tournament was the “last chance to win” for Kenny Williams, Luke Maye and himself.
“I don’t have a national championship,” Johnson said. “I don’t even have a Final Four. I’ve got a Round of 32 beatdown by Texas A&M. That kind of fuels me and I know it fuels a lot of my other teammates. We’ve got a lot of fire to get rid of.”