I've been giving a fair bit of thought to John Swofford's announcement that the ACC would shift to eighteen-game conference schedules next season, in advance of the arrival of Syracuse and Pittsburgh. Not that it was a surprise; to remain at sixteen was never really an option. Without expanding the schedule, schools would only play three home-and-homes a year, and if the ACC wanted to keep both the UNC-Duke and UNC-State series alive, that would leave eleven years to cycle through the rest of the conference slate. It was untenable.
So instead, the conference schedule expands and once again encroaches into December. This year was the first in quite some time that conference play hadn't started in January, ever since the television contract with Fox Sports demanded more Sunday night games than two months could contain. UNC was typically one of the few teams who didn't have to play an ACC foe until January – Fox learned to save the marquee names for later, towards the end – but that too will change now. And as a result, the typical way of scheduled December will have to change as well.
Carolina will lose one home game entirely and find another increased in difficulty (unless that opponent is Boston College, I suppose). The big question is whether the games sacrificed are the little ones like tonight's fifty-point rout of Nicholls State, or the big opponents, like Kentucky or Texas.
Dean Dome games sell out, regardless of how many empty seats you might have seen tonight. So monetarily, there's little advantage to having the Longhorns take the floor over say, Appalachian State. Fans prefer big games, but they also prefer winning teams, and the tune-ups and experiments of December have become an interesting part of Roy Williams' strategy.
Take this stretch. Working around exams, holidays, and the fact that the Heels don't have much of a road schedule this season, Carolina has scheduled three games with only a day of rest between each. This mirrors the NCAA Tournament, with the added advantage of the first two opponents being of the ridiculously weak variety. Ken Pomeroy rated Nichols State 333rd out of the 345 teams in D1-A. UNC was free to approach these games sluggishly if the schedule and exams left them that way, confident that it would take a true disaster for the game to actually be close.
And the team has definitely not performed to anyone's liking over stretches. Tonight they didn't score on their first four possessions, and only found the bottom of the hoop on four of their first twelve. This against a team that rarely puts an upperclassmen on the court, and never a man over 6'7". So yes, UNC had a 26-point halftime lead, and yet the starters were still pulled and screamed at in the second half for nearly five minutes. The Heels shot worse from the field than they had in any game outside the UNLV/Wisconsin/Kentucky stretch, and the Nicholls State defense wasn't the cause.
Unlike the Appalachian State game, where Tyler Zeller dominated the also-undersized Mountaineers to the tune of 31 points and 10 rebounds, there were no outsized performances tonight. Just the same rote remarks from players you often hear after these December games: "We've just got to keep our focus and go out there and give it our all," (Dexter Strickland) or "We've just got to come out and take that opponent and play hard from the beginning." (Reggie Bullock) Carolina players never fail to identify when they come out sluggishly, or what they should be doing instead. Yet so often in these minor December games they don't do such things, time and time again.
And of course, the trends of this season continue unabated. The rebounding was what you'd expect for a team so much taller and more athletic than their opponents, especially when UNC was missing so many shots. Their 31 offensive rebounds were second in school history (history in this case only goes back to 1986) and the 72 overall was the most since a Furman game in 1956. As has been the case this year, the free throw shooting was abysmal, with Carolina making only 7 of 21 from the line in the first half. They'd finish 21 of 41, their worst mark of the year.
Which brings us back to the question the new eighteen-game schedule poses: What does UNC gain from these December games? In discrete, forty-minute chunks, very little. Over the course of a few, you can see individual improvement. Reggie Bullock has hit double-digit scoring in four straight games now, and has done so while not being particularly strong from behind the arc. Instead, his driving ability and his defense – he's notched six steals in the same time period – have improved, and he's getting more playing time because of it. He also had 10 rebounds, a testament to his versatility on the court. James Michael McAdoo had a career high 14 points and 7 rebounds, after being almost invisible against Long Beach State and only slightly less so against App; as a freshman he's going to get more from the repeated game experience this month than most others. And Dexter Strickland was finally able to shake off a pair o bade performances as well, finishing with fourteen points.
All that being said, I'd much rather lose one of these last four games – Long Beach State, as good as they are, was strong by coincidence, not scheduling design – than the Kentucky and Texas games, even though the Heels lost the former and could very well drop the latter. I can see the home-and-homes with teams like the Longhorns not becoming a yearly thing, and perhaps timed to the ebb and flow of the talent in Chapel Hill, but otherwise players learn more from tougher opposition. Especially the kind they don't see very often. Sure, Syracuse and Pittsburgh will bring a Big East style of play in, with all the plodding and fouling that involves, but the variation helps. And it gets seen by a lot more people, both in person and on TV, than the quiet frustrations of Evansville or Nicholls State.
Meanwhile the one-day rest experiment rolls on, and the Heels will see how well they handle a team that can match them in size and scoring. And after Texas, a couple more pastries before the meal of the last sixteen-game ACC season. Enjoy December, because the next one just won't be the same.