The month of January went pretty much as predicted for the Tar Heels, as UNC won five of its first 6 ACC games and has resurfaced in the top 25 for the first time since November. Since the 4-3 start, UNC is 11-2 with the only losses being the Texas game that got away and the meltdown at Georgia Tech.
The next four games in particular are as crucial as any stretch of the season for Carolina, with three of those four on the road. Here is a look at these four games:
February 1 at Boston College: Admiral Ackbar is on line 1. This is a classic trap game for UNC, as the Heels have climbed back into the top-25, are a half-game out of first place in the ACC, and are generally playing well. But Carolina has historically struggled at the Conte Forum, and although BC is thin inside and even thinner on the bench, they have the kind of guard in Reggie Jackson that UNC fans fear will drop 30+ on them(and not like that's unprecedented when UNC plays BC). Like much of the ACC, BC has a couple of decent wins (Texas A&M) and some head-scratching losses (Harvard and Yale). A win in Chestnut Hill will be huge, but the Eagles are always a tough out.
February 5 vs. Florida State: There is simply one word to describe watching a FSU game: ugly. The Noles have carved their niche as the league's top defensive unit, with the result being less-than-aesthetically-pleasing basketball. FSU is currently in 3rd place in the ACC at 5-2 and with a big home win over Duke, but are only 1-3 away from home in their last four road games, including a loss to one of the country's worst teams in Auburn. FSU has the tools to give UNC fits, particularly if the game becomes an ugly, grind-it-out affair. Still, the Seminoles are pretty bad away from home so the advantage may go to the Tar Heels.
February 9 at Duke: This will mark UNC's first trip to the Evil Empire since last season's embarrassing league finale. Duke looked far from invincible last weekend at St. John's, and the loss at Florida State proved the adage of "live by the three, die by the three". Somehow, Duke doesn't seem to have problems shooting at home, so Carolina will have to play its level best and hope for some help from the Devils. This is a rivalry game and it is always interesting to see how teams respond. This will be a solid test of this young team's mettle, and maybe Tyler Hansbrough can drop by and be the team's good luck charm.
February 12 at Clemson: Speaking of painful memories from last season, the Heels return to Little Carolina where their bus was in a wreck before last year's game, just part of the wreck that became the 2010 season. UNC escaped the Tigers in Chapel Hill but playing at Clemson is a different story. When Littlejohn Coliseum is rocking and Clemson is feeling it, it can be a tough place to play and even tougher place to win.
With 10 games to go and given the general weakness of the ACC, Carolina will need to go no worse than 6-4 down the stretch to reach 11 ACC wins, 21 overall, and not feel the pressure of the NCAA tournament bubble. To make that happen, the Heels will need to earn at least a split of these four games. Anything above that is gravy and may show this team has really turned the corner.