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Game Preview: #8 UNC vs Syracuse

Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

North Carolina vs Syracuse, 7:00 PM, ESPN

UNC enters the final week of the regular season tied for first in the ACC with Miami needing to win out to sew up the #1 seed in the ACC Tournament. First up is Syracuse on Senior Night.

It's Senior Night

Six Tar Heels will run out of the home tunnel at the Dean Smith Center tonight for the last time in their UNC career. Three of those players are completing a four year journey that has been a roller coaster to say the least. There wasn't much fanfare surrounding Marcus Paige, Brice Johnson and Joel James when they arrived in the summer of 2012. James was considered to be a project who had great size but really raw since he had only started playing basketball in tenth grade. Johnson showed up 187 pounds dripping wet and considered a poor man's John Henson who would come off the bench behind James Michael McAdoo. Then there was Marcus Paige who looked like a kid when he arrived, struggled in the early going but showed a level of toughness most people didn't think he had.

This group endured a slight downturn in UNC basketball. The NCAA cloud and the prominence of Duke and Kentucky on the recruiting trail left UNC struggling to augment this class with a group of elite type players. It didn't help that McAdoo never quite lived up to the hype or P.J. Hairston never played a game in 2013-14. Still these guys, especially Johnson and Paige have outperformed expectation and in doing so probably kept UNC from walking a more difficult road than it has in the past four years.

In that respect, this core group is going to get a lot of love tonight. All have been solid representatives of the school both on and off the court at a time when scandal clouds hang low in the sky. Paige, in particular, has been the perfect foil to continued assaults on the integrity of UNC student-athletes as the face of the team. Much like the Senior Day for Tyler Hansbrough, Danny Green, Bobby Frasor and Mike Copeland in 2009, this night will have a special feel to it as the Dean Smith Center crowd says goodbye to a group of fan favorites.

State of the ACC race

UNC is presently tied for first in the ACC with Miami but holding the tiebreaker which means if the season ended today it would be surprising and the Tar Heels would be the #1 seed in the ACC Tournament. UNC's path this week is simply: Win and the #1 seed is locked up. Prior to the season it felt like 14-4 would get it done to finish first in the ACC and should UNC take care of both Syracuse and Duke, that would be the case.

In terms of immediate business, UNC can lock up the double-bye for the ACC Tournament with a win versus Syracuse.  In addition to the double-bye, UNC is ensured at least a top three seed. There is plenty of action to follow over the next two days which could shake things up even more. Virginia travels to Clemson on Tuesday with the Cavaliers sporting a 3-5 record on the road in ACC play.  Miami makes a trip to Notre Dame which could also saddle the Hurricanes with a loss.

A UNC win versus Syracuse plus losses by Virginia and Miami would clinch the #1 seed in the ACC Tournament for the Tar Heels.

Wearing Syracuse Down

Yet another two games in three days stretch for both UNC and Syracuse. Given the depth advantages UNC enjoys, this kind of scenario should work well for the Tar Heels. The Orange only go 6 or 7 deep which means there could be an opportunity for UNC to wear Syracuse down as the game goes one. On the season UNC is 2-1 on the Monday after a Saturday game with the only loss coming at Louisville. Syracuse is 1-0 with a tin over Duke in Durham.

The latter stat is also why the Orange are especially dangerous. After dropping his first game back versus UNC in early January, Syracuse has been very good in ACC play under Jim Boeheim. The Orange are 9-4 in ACC games under Boeheim this season but has not beaten a team in the KenPom top ten anywhere this season. In theory, this game sets up as a UNC win especially if the underclassmen show up to send the seniors out right.

UNC 85 Syracuse 71