Worst-Case Scenarios & My Irrational Fears

I have a problem. As the events of a given day unfold, I often play them out to their worst possible ending point in my head. Here’s an example: One day in college, I was playing ultimate frisbee with some friends on campus. About 20 yards beyond one of the end zones that we had marked out with hats and tennis shoes, standing several feet out of the ground like a beacon of impending doom, was an old yellow fire hydrant. The terrible scene that played out vividly in my head? I saw myself streaking downfield to make a diving catch that Odell Beckham, Jr. would have been envious of. The problem was that as I came back down to earth, I impaled my face on the fire hydrant, shattering every bone on the front side of my skull. Gruesome, huh?

On another occasion, I was hiking up a mountain with some friends at Devil’s Den State Park in Arkansas. We came to a rocky overlook with beautiful surrounding scenery and asked some other hikers to take our picture near the edge. You can already guess where this is headed. The awful scenario that played out in my head this time? As we waited for the picture to be taken, a strong gust of wind pushed me over the edge where I hurtled to my death on the sharp rocks below.

This is my curse. The struggle is real.

Truth be told, I’m actually an optimistic, glass-half-full type of person. I look for the best in people and believe, perhaps naively, that the world is a good place.

My worst-case scenario, doomsday problem also plays itself out in the world of sports. Rather than being disappointed when my favorite college basketball team loses a national championship game on a buzzer-beating three-pointer (oh wait, that happened) or my favorite football team chokes a 25 point lead in the Super Bowl (oh wait, that happened too), I assume the worst – that the North Carolina Tar Heels will lose in the first round of the NCAA Tournament or that the Atlanta Falcons won’t even make the playoffs.

With that said, we are coming down the stretch of the college basketball regular season. After every game, I like to play my “worst-case scenario” game with regard to where the Tar Heels could possibly end up in the ACC standings. Earlier this season, when they mathematically could not be passed by last place Boston College, I excitedly told myself, “Even if the Heels lose every game the rest of the season, the worst they can finish is 14th!”

After Carolina’s big win over Louisville on Wednesday night (and Syracuse’s upset of Duke a few hours earlier), I decided to investigate what the Tar Heels’ two game conference lead had earned them in terms of their worst possible seeding for the ACC Tournament.

I decided to investigate what the Tar Heels’ two game conference lead had earned them in terms of their worst possible seeding for the ACC Tournament.

First, some context: The main goal is obviously to win out, get the number one seed, and capture a convincing regular season conference championship. However, if the one seed can’t be had, teams want to achieve at least a top four seed. Doing so earns a double-bye to Thursday’s quarterfinal round.

Here is what my research uncovered: Every ACC team (except Syracuse, Wake Forest, and NC State) has three remaining games. The Tar Heels’ three games are at Pittsburgh, at Virginia, and home against Duke. For this worst-case scenario analysis, the assumption is that UNC loses all three games. Currently sitting at 12-3 in the conference, the worst North Carolina could finish is 12-6. This means that five other teams could potentially finish ahead of or tied with UNC. So we’ve solved it! That was simple. The worst UNC could finish in the ACC is 6th. Not too bad.

But wait, a closer look at the schedules reveals a different truth.

The five teams within striking distance of the Tar Heels are Louisville, Duke, Florida State, Notre Dame, and Miami. The current tiebreaker scenarios concerning Carolina and those teams (ACC tiebreakers are first based on head-to-head matchups, which solves each of these):

  • North Carolina holds tiebreaker over Louisville, Florida State, and Notre Dame.
  • Miami holds tiebreaker over the Heels.
  • In this scenario, Duke beats Carolina on March 4 and therefore holds the tiebreaker over the Heels.

Below is the remaining schedule and current conference record for those five teams (and North Carolina):

North Carolina (12-3)

  • @ Pittsburgh
  • @ Virginia
  • Duke

Louisville (10-5)

  • Syracuse
  • @ Wake Forest
  • Notre Dame

Duke (10-5)

  • @ Miami
  • Florida State
  • @ North Carolina

Florida State (10-5)

  • @ Clemson
  • @ Duke
  • Miami

Notre Dame (10-5)

  • Georgia Tech
  • Boston College
  • @ Louisville

Miami (9-6)

  • Duke
  • @ Virginia Tech
  • @ Florida State

You might notice that Louisville and Notre Dame still have to play each other, meaning at least one of these teams has to finish with six losses and Carolina holds the tiebreaker over both. Therefore, the worst UNC could finish in the ACC is 5th! Solved!

Nope. Not quite yet. Let’s keep digging.

All three of Duke’s remaining games are against teams from this group – Miami, FSU, and UNC. Here is what happens depending on how Duke’s games play out (again, these scenarios assume UNC loses all three of their remaining games):

  • Duke beats Miami and FSU – Miami has at least 7 losses, FSU has at least 6 losses (UNC holds the tiebreaker), and Duke has 5 losses. The worst UNC could finish is 3rd, behind Duke and either Louisville or Notre Dame.
  • Duke beats Miami and loses to FSU – Miami has at least 7 losses, FSU has at least 5 losses, Duke has 6 losses (holds the tiebreaker over UNC). The worst UNC could finish is 4th, behind FSU, Duke, and either Louisville or Notre Dame.
  • Duke loses to Miami and beats FSU – Miami has at least 6 losses (holds the tiebreaker over UNC), FSU has at least 6 losses (UNC holds the tiebreaker), and Duke has 6 losses (holds the tiebreaker over UNC). The worst UNC could finish is 4th, behind, Miami, Duke, and either Louisville or Notre Dame.

To add one final wrinkle, Florida State and Miami also still play each other. Building on the Duke scenarios we just established:

  • Duke beats Miami and FSU; FSU beats Miami – Duke has 5 losses, Miami has at least 8 losses, FSU has at least 6 losses (UNC holds the tiebreaker). The worst UNC could finish is 3rd, behind Duke and either Louisville or Notre Dame
  • Duke beats Miami and FSU; Miami beats FSU – Duke has 5 losses, Miami has at least 7 losses, FSU has at least 7 losses. The worst UNC could finish is 3rd, behind Duke and either Louisville or Notre Dame
  • Duke beats Miami and loses to FSU; FSU beats Miami – Duke has 6 losses (holds tiebreaker over UNC), Miami has at least 8 losses, FSU has at least 5 losses. The worst UNC could finish is 4th, behind Duke, FSU, and either Louisville or Notre Dame.
  • Duke beats Miami and loses to FSU; Miami beats FSU – Duke has 6 losses (holds tiebreaker over UNC), Miami has at least 7 losses, FSU has at least 6 losses (UNC holds the tiebreaker). The worst UNC could finish is 3rd, behind Duke and either Louisville or Notre Dame.
  • Duke loses to Miami and beats FSU; FSU beats Miami – Duke has 6 losses (holds tiebreaker over UNC), Miami has at least 7 losses, FSU has at least 6 losses (UNC holds the tiebreaker). The worst UNC could finish is 3rd, behind Duke and either Louisville or Notre Dame.
  • Duke loses to Miami and beats FSU; Miami beats FSU – Duke has 6 losses (holds tiebreaker over UNC), Miami has at least 6 losses (holds tiebreaker over UNC), FSU has at least 7 losses. The worst UNC could finish is 4th, behind Duke, Miami, and either Louisville or Notre Dame.

So what does all this mumbo-jumbo mean? What’s the bottom line? Here it is:

UNC has already locked up a top-4 seed and an all-important double-bye in the ACC Tournament.

What a relief. The worst-case scenario is that North Carolina finishes fourth. And there are only two scenarios in which that becomes a reality. This is great news, but the work isn’t done. The Tar Heels are not going to sit idly by and take three losses.

If Carolina can win at least one of the three remaining games, they lock up at least a share of the ACC Regular Season Championship and at least the two seed in the ACC Tournament. Should the Tar Heels win at least two of their three remaining games, they will clinch the outright ACC Regular Season Championship and the one seed in the ACC Tournament. Also, don’t forget that the other five teams involved in these scenarios have other games they could possibly lose, which would help Carolina’s cause.

I can rest in peace knowing that, for once, the worst-case scenario isn’t all that bad.

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