Alternate title: "Can UNC go 16-0 in the ACC"
Now that UNC has finished up the non-conference slate with a tidy 13-2 mark, our attention now turns to the sixteen game ACC docket. Based on the past 10 weeks or so of basketball it is painfully clear the ACC is extremely weak as a conference. Currently it is looking like at probably four bids in the NCAA Tournament with only UNC, Duke and Virginia showing any real interest in winning on a consistent basis versus good competition. The relative weakness of the league means if there was ever a season UNC could probably run the conference table this one is probably it random losses notwithstanding.
Historically UNC has gone undefeated in ACC regular season play three times: 1957, 1984 and 1987. In all three of those cases UNC went 14-0. Since the ACC moved to sixteen games with the addition of Florida St in 1992, only one team has gone 16-0 and that was Duke in 1999 in a year where the ACC was probably as weak as it is right now. The ACC only put three teams in the NCAA Tournament that season: Duke, Maryland and UNC. In UNC's history the Heels have never won more than 14 games in ACC play, a feat they have accomplished seven times, three times since Roy Williams took over in 2004.
In terms of the current season, Ken Pomeroy lays out the win probability for every game on the schedule. According to KenPom there is only one game UNC is projected to lose out of the final sixteen. KenPom gives the Heels only a 41% chance of winning in the regular season finale in Durham vs Duke. Here is the breakdown of UNC's remaining games by win KenPom win probability:
Below 50%: 1
Eight of those games are in the 90% range and one is in the 80% range which makes them similar to the recent slate of games UNC just finished, Texas included. Those nine games include five ACC teams ranked 125th or worse in KenPom which is the most UNC has ever faced in an ACC season(previous record was three.) After that the three games in the 70% range are road contests at Florida St, NC State and Miami. The games in the 60% range are at home vs Duke and on the road vs Virginia and Virginia Tech.
The win probabilities all seem fairly reasonably, especially the two games in Virginia. The 76% win probability at NC State strikes me as a tad high. Taking these numbers into consideration I would expect UNC to win all eight ACC games at home, easily win at Wake Forest and Maryland plus beat Miami in Coral Cables. The remaining five games are the ones that serve the best chance of derailing a potential 16-0 season or hand UNC at least two losses.
Jan. 14 at Florida State(70% win probability)
Yeah, I know FSU lost to Princeton and Harvard and quite frankly is a disappointment for a team expected to hang around in the top half of the ACC but they also present a matchup issue for UNC. FSU has good interior size, can be very physical and plays outstanding defense. In other words, it will be a lot like playing UNLV except FSU's offense is six kinds of awful. Not to mention this will be UNC's first foray away from the Dean Dome since the Kentucky game.
Jan. 19 at Virginia Tech(66% win probability)
If Seth Greenberg's teams played everyone else as well as they played UNC or Duke in Blacksburg, the Hokies might make it into the NCAA Tournament. Going to Blacksburg has historically been tough for both UNC and Duke though UNC has fared better as the favored team than Duke has. The Hokies have shown themselves to be a decent team though they probably should have won at Minnesota and beaten Kansas St. at home. This will be a tough game for the Heels and the second straight road game with the Heels having gone to Tallahassee five days prior.
Feb. 21 at NC State(78% win probability)
KenPom says UNC has a 78% chance of winning this game and I think that is a tad high. Granted we are taking a long view of this and there is no way of knowing how either team will be playing 6-7 weeks from now. However, I get the sneaking suspicion the Wolfpack will be up for this game, especially if the Heels take care of the first game in Chapel Hill. Plus, assuming UNC wins the first game this will be for a 12th straight win over the Pack. Something has got to give at some point right?
Feb. 25 at Virginia(63% win probability)
UVa has shown itself to be a very good team and this one screams loss for a couple of reasons. First is UVa's style which is similar to Wisconsin's. Secondly, this will be in Charlottesville where undoubtedly the Cavaliers will shoot the ball well. Add to the mix All-ACC caliber big man Mike Scott who is a double-double guy which will give UNC a stiff challenge on the boards. This sort of game will require some crisp execution from the Heels and if you recall last season's game at UVa was one UNC nearly lost.
Mar. 3 at Duke(40% win probability)
This really doesn't need any explanation. It's UNC-Duke. It's in Durham. It will be a tough win to grab for all the reasons you already know.
Another interesting caveat to this discussion is the fact UNC has never started better than 3-0 in ACC play under Roy Williams. According to our resident stat guru C.Michael, the Heels of the Roy Williams era routinely lose at least one game in their first four.
*Started the season 3-0.
For the record UNC's third and fourth games of the ACC schedule this season are two of the five games highlighted above: at FSU and at Virginia Tech. It is possible we see the same sort of thing happen here simply because Roy's emphasis has always been on peaking in March not January. In fact, as C.Michael has pointed out in the past the more important number to look for is a ten game winning streak which will happen if UNC beats Boston College, Miami and FSU to open the ACC season 3-0. Since winning the NCAA title requires a six game winning streak it is important for a team to show they can at least put together such a win streak over a period of time versus differing caliber opposition. The 2005 team had a 14 game winning streak at one point in the season. The 2009 team won 13 straight to open the season then ten straight after the loss to Wake Forest.
The difficult part of predicting a win total, is you never know in college basketball when a combination of events/factors will equate to a loss. That is why predicting 16-0 is pretty much done on a lark and not for any serious reasons. When ACC play started in 2009, the conventional thinking based on the way UNC had handled the likes of Michigan St was the game at Wake Forest would be the only roadblock to 16-0. As it turned out UNC ended up 13-3 losing that game plus bad outings against Boston College at home and on the road vs Maryland and the giant killer Gary Williams. Last season UNC could have lost several games that went down to the final minutes before The Black Falcon made an appearance. Bearing all of that in mind, the safe bet is another 14-2 ACC mark good enough to snag back-to-back ACC Regular Season titles. Two "any given night" losses are totally conceivable and if that does happen will likely be one of the five above with an additional wary eye cast at that Feb. 15th game in Miami.
Whatever the case 14-2 puts the Heels at 27-4 and in position for a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. At that point, I fully expected this team will show up with plenty of motivation to win an ACC title.