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February Outlook, Part II (and March, too)

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What a chain of events has transpired for UNC in the first two weeks of February: Larry Drew left the team, won two road games at places typically not friendly to the Tar Heels, and nearly pulled off a win against Duke in Cameron. The general consensus is much more positive on this team than it was just two weeks ago, when fans were modestly hoping for a split of what was arguably the toughest stretch of the season. But going 3-1 against that stretch, with a heck of a 1st half against the Blue Devils, has plenty of people jumping back on the Carolina bandwagon. With that in mind, here is a look at UNC's final six games:

February 15 vs Wake Forest: Nothing cures a case of the offensive blues like a visit from the worst ACC team in a decade. UNC has had three consecutive sub-par halves starting with the second half against Duke, but the poor Deacons are simply dreadful on both ends of the floor. Wake showed the gap between themselves and the second-worst team in the league by dropping a 25-point loss to NC State on Sunday. If Carolina gets the jets fired up in this one, Bojangle's may be putting some extra bakers on standby for Wednesday.

February 19 vs. Boston College: A rematch of the game in Chestnut Hill that bolted the Tar Heels out of the gate  may not be as likely to repeat itself in the Chapel Hill. UNC's size and strength inside will carry the day, but there's something about the Smith Center that makes opponents light it up and Reggie Jackson or Joe Trapani could be primed for a breakout afternoon and make the Heels sweat.

February 23 at NC State: The Wolfpack showed signs of life this weekend as C.J. Leslie returned from his suspension and led State to a drubbing of Wake Forest. Then again, it was against Wake Forest. Sidney Lowe's tenure in Raleigh is on life support and the Pack will be fighting to make the NIT, not the NCAA hoped for and expected at the beginning of the season. This game will be State's last shot at glory and salvaging something from this disappointment of a season, but it should not be anything UNC can't handle.

February 27 vs. Maryland: The Terps have been a puzzling team this season. They seem like they should be much better than their record indicates and Jordan Williams is an outstanding player, but they have failed to find any consistency this year. Then again, for some reason Maryland seems to frequently have Carolina's number, and despite this game being in Chapel Hill, this screams trap game.

March 2 at Florida State: As of this writing, the Seminoles are in 3rd place in the ACC, just a half-game behind UNC. But FSU without Chris Singleton is an entirely different story. Singleton broke his right foot against Virginia and despite successful surgery, his availability for the rest of the season is unknown. How well the Noles hold it together in his absence has ramifications for their NCAA hopes as well as the implications for this game. As long as Leonard Hamilton patrols the sidelines in Tallahassee, UNC always has a shot (literally, as in Ty Lawson's shot in '09).

March 5 vs. Duke: It will seem weird to have a senior game against Duke with no true scholarship seniors, as only graduate student Justin Knox and the Blue Steel guys will have reached the end of their Carolina careers. The general feeling after the Duke game in Durham was that UNC would be favored in the game in Chapel Hill. It will be put up or shut up time for that notion; plus, if UNC has performed well in the previous five games, a share of the regular-season title and significant NCAA seeding could be up for grabs.

With four of the final six in the friendly confines of the Smith Center, and given the way UNC has played of late, going anything less than 5-1 down the stretch will probably be considered a disappointment, though there are a couple of potential land mines along the way. Since the first of December, however, UNC is 14-3 with the losses against (now) #2/3 Texas (by 2), at #5 Duke (by 6), and the fluke at Georgia Tech.

Winning 5 of 6 would have UNC finishing the ACC season at 13-3, and I think most anyone would have taken that before the season started.