The rollercoaster ride that is North Carolina basketball has, in the span of six days, delivered whiplash to UNC fans. A brutal home loss to Marquette on Wednesday. A riveting recovery win over Florida State three days later. And now, another gut punch via Syracuse: a 72-70 loss to the Orange.
The bumpy ride dropping us here with this outcome should come as no surprise, yet it doesn’t make it any easier for UNC to absorb. The Tar Heels were an 11 seed in Jerry Palm’s bracket entering the day, riding high off a win over No. 11 Florida State. But Palm made clear that their inclusion came with a caveat that they are far from safe.
Falling to the Orange doesn’t drastically hurt its tourney chances, but it is flirting dangerously with disaster now with margin for error quickly dwindling. If there’s a silver lining here, it’s that drama is bubbling around North Carolina — the state. This now sets up a juicy regular-season finale Saturday against Duke that may be the most bubblicious battle of bluebloods all season, with both teams taking it down to the wire as they vye for at-large bids.
With that, here are Monday night’s winners and losers from across the hoops landscape — ranging from bubble talk to conference drama to everything in between.
Loser: North Carolina’s tourney profile takes hit
North Carolina moved from an 11 seed and in the field of 68 to Jerry Palm’s “last four in” with its loss to Syracuse, replacing Georgia Tech. So, yes, still in the field for now but hanging by a thread. Turns out that committing 20 turnovers and making just four of 20 3-point attempts on Syracuse’s home court does not do the tourney credentials much good.
Winner: Syracuse stays alive
There’s a long list of teams on the bubble, and Syracuse’s 72-70 win over North Carolina did well enough to keep it in that discussion. Still, Cuse is 0-6 in Quad 1 opportunities and in need of not just wins but good wins. In 2021, a win over UNC is not that. Toppling the Tar Heels was important to keep its Big Dance dreams alive but its resume remains hollow.
Loser: Atlantic 10 at-large candidates
Having already won the A-10, St. Bonaventure entered its regular-season finale on Monday against Dayton simply needing to avoid a loss because, in the wise words of Jerry Palm, a loss would put its at-large hopes “in doubt.” But the Bonnies did not cooperate with Mr Palm. Instead, they fell 55-52 in their lowest-scoring game of the season, dealing a significant blow to its at-large candidacy.
The loss was one of two brutal outcomes in the A-10 on Monday with Richmond falling 76-73 in a true stunner against St. Joseph’s — arguably the worst team in the league upending the preseason favorite. It came in brutal fashion, too, with Richmond’s Matt Grace hitting a game-tying 3-pointer that came just after the final horn and was waved off. It’s too early to draw sweeping conclusions from these outcomes, but it’s a pretty crushing blow for two teams that entered the night with real hopes to sneak into the Big Dance without the golden ticket of winning the conference tournament.
Winner: Virginia finally gets back on track
There was no real danger of No. 21 Virginia, a No. 5 seed in Palm’s bracket, falling out of the tournament picture. But three consecutive losses the last two weeks tossed it from ACC frontrunner to ACC runner-up in a hurry. It has been treading water, so getting back on track Monday against Miami in a 62-51 win — even against Miami — qualifies as a win for the reigning champs. Big confidence builder as it moves to its regular-season finale Saturday against Louisville.
Loser: Rutgers walks into Pinnacle Bank, tumbles hard
Maybe — OK, definitely — the most stunning outcome of Monday night: Nebraska 72, Rutgers 51.
Yes, Rutgers scored 51 points and lost to the worst team in the Big Ten by 21 points. It’s Nebraska’s largest win in league play since it beat, you guessed it, Rutgers by 34 points in January 2016.
As expected, Western Kentucky handled business against FIU on Sunday, winning 91-58. The Hilltoppers followed that up with a 71-59 win against FIU on Monday to sweep the two-game series. Palm’s read was that a loss would’ve wiped away their at-large hopes, and while a win doesn’t lock them in, it absolutely keeps them in the bubble discussion. Winning the C-USA tourney may be the safe way to punch a ticket given its shaky credentials for an at-large.