I miss the good old days of ACC conference scheduling. The games didn't start to the new year, you had home and aways with every other team, and everything was perfectly balanced, with Duke coming as the seventh (and later eighth) team on the schedule, right before the return trip through the same teams you just played. There was a nice symmetry to things.
Now, of course, that's all behind us, and with the first Duke and the second State game already in the books, we're down to the waning weeks of the season, with everyone doing the math on exactly how UNC can reach an 8-8 record and salvage the season. And no matter how likely you think that possibility is, you're still doing the math.
One of the things that made Carolina's early struggles do dispiriting was the belief that the back half of the conference schedule was much worse than the first half. There are more road games, the time between games is reduced to three days on a lot of them, and the opponents just looked more daunting. After all, who foresaw Virginia Tech and Virginia being one and two games out of the conference lead respectively at this point in the season? The funny thing is though,the back half of the schedule looks a lot more winnable now that we've seen the teams fight through January. To wit:
Georgia Tech The Yellow Jackets game was the biggest sign that something was seriously wrong with the Heels this season, as they gave Carolina their first loss at home. A four-game home losing streak later, however, and Tech stands out as being the Heels' best loss at home, a two-point squeaker in which UNC shut down Derrick Favors and showed an overall good defensive performance in the second half, at least. Although still regarded highly by Ken Pomeroy's ratings, Tech has lost three of their last four and only beat N.C. State by the same score with which they topped UNC. Part of that is due to the Jackets' abysmal road record – UNC is their only conference road win – and unfortunately, Carolina will be playing in Atlanta this game, which will make this a tough, but not impossible hurdle to get over. This will be the true test of whether UNC has learned from it's rebounding debacle against Duke. The Heels are now undersized and Tech's big strength is their ability to crash the boards.
Boston College Coming into the season, BC was expected to finish last, and their the only ACC team under .500 for the season right now. Like Carolina, they've only one three conference games, and as of last Wednesday had the worst defense in the ACC. This game too is a road trip for the Heels, but unlike Georgia Tech, the Eagles have not made their home court a particularly fearsome place to play. With all eyes on the hockey team, this remains UNC's weakest remaining opponent and a very winnable game.
Florida State I'm just excited for the two most turnover-prone teams in the conference to meet on the court; the comedic value alone will make this game worthwhile. But although the Seminoles have pulled themselves above .500 in conference, they've done with a very easy slate that includes only one win over a team with a winning conference record. More embarrassingly, they are N.C. State's other, non-Duke win in conference, a game FSU lost by seven at home. This is a home game for the Heels, and if they don't win this one, the season will have probably been written off already.
Wake Forest Yeah, this one will be tough. The Demon Deacons are undefeated at home, and have already destroyed UNC on the road. The one upside there is that the previous loss came with Ed Davis out with an injury, so the rematch probably won't be that much worse. I don't see a way for Carolina to prevail in this one.
Miami The Hurricanes are the other team spending time with UNC and BC in the three-win category. They'll have to travel to Chapel Hill as well, and they're winless in conference on the road. Miami epitomizes the team with the soft non-conference schedule unprepared for ACC play, starting 15-1 only to lose seven of their last nine. UNC should win this one handily.
Duke Marcus Ginyard (and the rest of the team for that matter) is undefeated at Cameron. That's the best thing Carolina has going for it at this point.
So that's where things stand. At least three, an perhaps four games easily within this team's reach. A 7-9 record is not out of the realm of possibility, which put the Heels only one game off of Roy Williams' first season at the helm. (In fact, UNC now stands only one game behind where the 2004 team was at this point. We were all a lot more understanding immediately after Matt Doherty.) All's not lost, but the team better start finding some pieces soon.