No. 20 UNLV ranks 10th in the latest RPI rankings, according to CBSSports.com. That's a critical distinction for a Tar Heel team (9-3) that is 1-2 against the RPI top-100 this season with losses to No. 6 Butler and No. 16 Indiana and a victory over No. 69 McNeese State.
North Carolina's third loss came against Texas (107th, RPI), giving the Tar Heels a 4-1 record against teams ranked 101-200 in the RPI. The net result, to date, is NCAA Tournament bubble status in valued statistical breakdowns such as RPI (No. 49) and strength of schedule (91).
The holiday season welcomes the first projected NCAA brackets by various pundits, and those early guesses mirror what the RPI and SOS numbers suggest. On Thursday, Jerry Palm of CBSSports.com penciled UNC in as a No. 12 seed in the Midwest Region.
When asked on Friday if it was too early to start talking about NCAA Tournament resumes, Roy Williams told reporters: "It's not for you guys, but it is for us. I'm trying to figure out how the hell to get the ball inbounds."
"The way I look at it is we're playing a game against a team that would be one of the two best teams in the ACC," he continued. "That caliber of team is what we're getting ready to play. I don't even know that I think about until the ACC tournament starts, but I do that less than anybody."
While the current projections provide little value other than driving message board and talk radio banter, they offer a glimpse at a team's NCAA Tournament foundation to date. At this point of the season in 2010-11 and 2011-12, North Carolina ranked 30th and 10th in the RPI, respectively. Strong efforts during ACC play in both years improved those rankings significantly.
However, there are striking similarities to the 2009-10 season, the first and last time a Williams-led UNC squad played in the NIT postseason tournament.
Entering its final nonconference contest of the season, UNC ranked No. 47 in the RPI with an 11-3 record. The Tar Heels were 1-3 against RPI top-50 teams and 4-3 against top-100 teams with a signature win over No. 9 Michigan State (No. 36 RPI) in Chapel Hill.
North Carolina dropped its final nonconference game of 2009-10 at the College of Charleston before posting a 5-11 record in conference play to finish at No. 66 in the final RPI rankings.
That team's RPI ranking held up so well despite its losing record due to 10 ACC teams being ranked in the RPI top-100 the week before the conference season began.
There are currently only five ACC teams ranked in the RPI top-100 – Duke (No. 1), N.C. State (No. 5), Miami (No. 21) and Maryland (No. 46). The Tar Heels will play eight games against those four opponents this season.
A win against UNLV on Saturday would give the Tar Heels' resume and RPI ranking a significant lift, while also providing an even larger confidence boost.
"We have to start playing better," Williams said. "Against Butler, we were awful for about 12 minutes and then we were really good for about eight minutes. I think for us, there's no doubt that it would help our confidence. I think any time you play anyone of this caliber and play well, you get more confident in what you're doing yourself and I think that does carry over."
Freshman point guard Marcus Paige agreed that a win over the Runnin' Rebels would help with confidence heading into the ACC opener at Virginia on Jan. 6.
"I think we all realize it's a big opportunity to get a really good nonconference win, especially coming into conference play," Paige said. "Obviously, UNLV is a really good team, so to get a win like this – a signature win is something we really haven't had yet – so it would be really good to get that."
How the Tar Heels conclude the nonconference slate on Saturday could set the tone for how the ACC season plays out beginning next week.
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