After wrapping up non-conference play with a 10-4 record (and on the heels of a 5-1 mark in December), UNC now begins the grind of the ACC schedule. Here is a quick look at the six ACC games Carolina will play in January:
January 8 at Virginia: The Cavaliers have been somewhat of a mystery this season. They have a couple of big victories (at Virginia Tech and at Minnesota) and a couple of head-scratching losses. The Hoos have been hurt by the loss of leading scorer and rebounder Mike Scott, who had ankle surgery a few weeks ago and has not recovered as hoped. He is not expected to play against UNC on Saturday. Other than Scott, Virginia is a young team and has struggled to find a consistent shooting stroke. A Tony Bennett-coached team is always a tough out, but the Heels have a good opportunity to pick up an early road win in Charlottesville.
January 13 vs. Virginia Tech: The Hokies stumbled early but seem to have righted the ship with five straight wins after a 4-4 start. Malcolm Delaney returns for what seems like his 12th year in a Virginia Tech uniform, and is again one of the top players in the ACC. The Hokies were picked second in the league, one spot ahead of the Tar Heels and this is the only meeting between the two teams this season. Stakes will be high and hopefully UNC will have the advantage at home. Plus, the Hokies will have to overcome the loss of guard Dorenzo Hudson for the season with a foot injury.
January 16 at Georgia Tech: Maybe archaeologists can be brought in to see what kind of Carolina-blue kryptonite surrounds Alexander Memorial Coliseum, because the Heels historically play poorly in Atlanta. The Yellow Jackets can't shoot (only 40% from the floor and 29% from three as of this writing) and have lost to both Siena and Kennesaw State this season, but Iman Shumpert and Brian Oliver seem to love playing UNC and this has all the makings of a trap game.
January 18 vs. Clemson: The Streak comes to Chapel Hill. Clemson must wonder what they did to the basketball gods in that they could not beat UNC in Chapel Hill during the 8-20 season and did not even play the Heels in Chapel Hill last year. The Tigers spanked Carolina in their one meeting last season, and a young Clemson team led by Demontez Stitt has had a respectable start under new coach Brad Brownell, but it would appear The Streak should be safe for one more year.
January 26 at Miami: As usual, the Canes are athletic and have performed well in the non-conference season, but Miami seems to be allergic to ACC play. Malcolm Grant is proving to be one of the ACC's better guards, and big man Reggie Johnson is avergaing a double-double. Road wins in the ACC are always at a premium, but Miami is not a particularly intimidating place to play.
January 29 vs. N.C. State: State has had an infusion of freshman talent and by the time this game rolls around, Tracy Smith should be back to 100%. Rivalry games are often a tough out and this is no exception. But again Carolina has the advantage of having this game at home.
Given how well UNC has been playing, going 7-0 in January (counting the St. Francis game) is not out of the question; realistically, however, the Heels can be expected to drop at least one game during this stretch. But a 6-1 or 5-2 January on top of a 5-1 December puts Carolina in good shape heading into the final five weeks of ACC play.
Best case is at the end of January, UNC is 16-4 or 15-5, 6-0 or 5-1 ACC, and back in the top 25. Even in the worst case, UNC should expect to win 4 of 6 this month. Then again after the College of Charleston debacle last year, UNC rebounded to beat a decent Virginia Tech team and no one at that point could predict the doom to come, so nothing is taken for granted here.