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UNC’s pre-season schedule lacks big names, but not challenges

One of UNC’s frequent opponents is missing, but the difficulty decided to stay.

NCAA Basketball: Final Four Championship Game-Gonzaga vs North Carolina Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, UNC announced their non-conference schedule for the 2017-18 basketball season. UNC will open the season against Northern Iowa on November 10th at the Dean Smith Center. Shortly after the schedule release, fellow THB writers Akil Guruparan and Jake Lawrence broke down the schedule and pointed out the highlights. However, one thing sticks out in the schedule that is worth keying in on:

Where is Kentucky? Where is the guaranteed marquee matchup? Is the sky falling?

Alright, that last question is a bit dramatic. However, it is very interesting that for the first time in quite a few years there isn’t really a blockbuster matchup that is (guaranteed) on the schedule. The reason why the word “guaranteed” is being used so much will be discussed in a little bit.

For at least the past five years, UNC has managed to get at least one AP Top 10 team on their non-conference schedule. While this isn’t something that can be predicted when these schedules are set in stone, as there are too many variables for that to be possible, it does seem like it has helped UNC in team development as well as with their NCAA Tournament resume. Granted, the ACC is a gauntlet all on its own, but it always helps pull away from the rest of the field when you are able to pull off a big time victory against a top opponent.

The Associated Press has yet to release their top 25 standings, as it is way too early for that. However, if there is any validity to ESPN’s top 25 that they released back in May then UNC is without that big time matchup that they have managed to have for so long. There is however a situation in which UNC could play Michigan State in the Phil Knight Invitational, who ESPN has as their No. 3 team in the country. Miles Bridges is coming off of a big season for the Spartans, averaging 16.9 PPG his freshman season yet deciding to not declare for the NBA Draft. Should UNC make that matchup happen, they will manage to fill the void of marquee matchups.

With all of that said: UNC’s lack of big name opponent really becomes a moot point when you look at their schedule. The Tar Heels have to travel out to the west coast to play Stanford for their first big test of the year. Also, the Phil Knight Invitational has various scenarios awaiting them in Portland aside from just Michigan State.

Should UNC win their first matchup against Portland they can potentially face Arkansas, a team they narrowly defeated in the NCAA tournament who would LOVE to exact revenge for their loss. If UNC beats Arkansas or Oklahoma, they can potentially face Oregon, the team they defeated in the Final Four. The interesting thing about this potential rematch is that Oregon would be without Dillon Brooks and Jordan Bell, both of whom moved on to the NBA this summer. Finally, as mentioned earlier, Michigan State could be potentially awaiting the Heels in the finals of their bracket.

Following the tournament, there are a couple quality matchups that will not be assumed wins by any stretch for UNC. Davidson and Tennessee both gave UNC fits last year, and both of those games will be outside of the Dean Smith Center. Tennessee gave them their biggest scare of the two, as UNC managed to escape with a 73-71 victory at home.

Regardless of a lack of a Kentucky, a (good) Maryland or one of the other top-tier programs UNC has become accustomed to facing in the fall, they will have their work cut out for them until ACC play when it will become even more difficult. When it’s all said and done, this will be a good thing for UNC in one way or another. They risk taking some losses, yes, but it’s losses like the ones against Kentucky and Indiana last year that made UNC the team that it finished as this past season. Hopefully the pre-season proves to be beneficial and the Heels will be ready for the conference gauntlet.