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UNC Basketball: Breaking down the 2018-2019 schedule

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Without a football game, we had some free time to break down next season’s basketball schedule.

NCAA Basketball: ACC Conference Tournament-Duke vs North Carolina Nicole Sweet-USA TODAY Sports

As most of you know by now, last week the ACC released their 2018-2019 schedule. That announcement means that UNC’s entire schedule for the upcoming season is now public knowledge. Due to the unfortunate impact of Hurricane Florence and the cancellation UNC football’s home opener against UCF, we had a little extra time on our hands this weekend. So, enjoy a deeper dive into this season’s basketball opponents.

Non-Conference

The non-conference schedule is full of big names, top programs, and the typical cupcakes. It’s a classic UNC schedule that will present early challenges and prepare them for conference play. The Heels have never shied away from competition.

However, I’m not sold that this schedule is as tough as previous years — and I fully recognize I am likely in the minority. Will it be a top-10 schedule? Maybe. It is still more difficult than the majority of high-major programs. There are the typical trap opponents (seriously, can we stop playing Texas?), and traveling to Wofford will make some nervous. But aside from the match-up with Kentucky and home game against Gonzaga, does any game make you really excited? Let’ s break it down.

True Road Games

Nov. 6th, at Wofford
Nov. 9th, at Elon
Nov. 28th, at Michigan (ACC/B1G Challenge)

The Heels open up the season with two true road games to Wofford and Elon. Roy has made an effort in the past to help in-state schools open up new arenas, and he will do so again at Elon. Wofford is a return game from last year’s match-up. Good for UNC, but barring a loss, neither of these do much to move the needle of their overall strength of schedule. It’s a high risk, low reward set-up that deserves little more than an acknowledgement at good PR.

They’ll travel to Michigan for their only non-con high-major road contest of the season. After not playing the Wolverines for 25 years, the two teams now face each other for the second-straight season. After losing three of their top six players from last year’s national runner-up squad, chances are this Michigan team won’t be a juggernaut in the first month. Two exhibition losses while in Spain also don’t inspire much optimism. It sounds tough on paper and a road game is a road game, but by the time Thanksgiving rolls around this game may have lost most of its luster.

Neutral Court Games

Nov. 22, vs Texas (Las Vegas)
Nov. 23, vs Michigan State or UCLA (Las Vegas)
Dec. 22, vs Kentucky (Chicago)

Neutral court events are a common occurrence. Early season tournaments and/or marketing gimmicks are an easy way to play top competition and avoid home-and-home series. The Heels have three such games. Obviously Michigan State (if they meet) and Kentucky are the jewels of the schedule. No complaints with either opponent, and both should give UNC a good test. The other two opponents however....

Texas is always a tough out for Roy Williams’ Heels, but the Longhorns finished 19-15 and were a 10-seed last year. They lost their centerpiece in Mo Bamba to the NBA draft, and have generally underwhelmed in Shaka Smart’s tenure. Is it a game that North Carolina can lose? Of course it is, but if the Heels win, everyone will say that a victory was expected.

UCLA is a similar case. An 11-seed last year, Steve Alford’s hasn’t finished better than 2nd in the PAC-10 since his first season in 2011-2012. His UCLA teams have never made it past the Sweet 16. They lost five players to graduation or the NBA, and don’t have one returning senior. A victory over Michigan State is needed just to potentially play the Heels. If that happens, it may say more about the Spartans than it does the Bruins.

The names will draw the recognition. Hopefully the talent on the court will match the marketing.

Home Games

Nov. 12 Stanford
Nov. 16 Tennessee Tech
Nov. 19, St. Francis
Dec. 5, UNCW
Dec. 15, Gonzaga
Dec. 29, Davidson
Jan. 2, Harvard

Once again, kudos to UNC for entering home-and-home series against power programs. Stanford is a return game from last year, and UNC will head to Spokane next season. At the risk of regretting overlooking anyone, we all know the Stanford and Gonzaga are the headliners of this slate. Davidson also has potential to be entertaining. A loss to any of those three would bring different levels of disappointment, but most wouldn’t be surprised.

A loss to any of the other schools would cause panic like Wofford and Belmont in previous seasons. Pretty cut and dry.

Conference Schedule

UNC ACC Schedule

Home Games Away Games
Home Games Away Games
Jan. 12, Notre Dame Jan. 5, Pittsburgh
Jan. 15, Louisville Jan. 8, NC State
Jan. 21, Virginia Tech Jan. 19, Miami
Feb. 5, NC State Jan. 29, Georgia Tech
Feb. 9, Miami Feb. 2, Louisville
Feb. 11, Virginia Feb. 16, Wake Forest
Feb. 23, Florida State Feb. 20, Duke
Feb. 26, Syracuse Mar. 2, Clemson
Mar. 9, Duke Mar. 5, Boston College

UNC’s home-and-home opponents are in bold. Take a minute and let that sink in. There is no easy way to put this: the ACC schedule, as of September 17, 2018, is extremely favorable to North Carolina. After last season’s gauntlet, this is Christmas.

How tough was last year’s schedule? Of the top 11 teams in the ACC standings, UNC played nine of them on the road. UNC was one of those 11 teams, Miami was the other. Call me crazy, but I don’t see Wake Forest, Boston College, Georgia Tech, or Pittsburgh being serious challengers in the ACC this season. I’m definitely not a believer in Clemson.

This season, the toughest game might be at Duke? Virginia? Of course a game will sneak up (at Miami?), and a random team will make some noise (Virginia Tech?). It is the ACC. However, for a team that returns three senior starters in Kenny Williams, Cameron Johnson, and First-team All-ACC selectee Luke Maye, a regular season ACC title should be an expectation.

Final Thoughts

Beware of Nooners

Five conference games have noon tip-offs. At least three — at Pitt, at Miami, at Wake — are on the road. The Saturday road game at Louisville is still TBD. Most teams struggle with these early games, and the Heels are no different. If you're looking for a surprise loss, start there.

Home Sweet Home

The Heels don’t play more than two consecutive true road games the entire season. They do have a stretch of three consecutive home games in ACC play. NC State, Miami, and Virginia visit on Feb 5, 9, and 11. That is possibly the second most important stretch of the conference season for the Heels, against three marquee opponents.

Most Important Stretch

Arguably, the first four games are the most important stretch in ACC play. Road games at Pitt and NC State, followed by home games against Louisville and Notre Dame may not seem like your typical power players. However, nabbing four winnable games early in January will give some breathing room (and confidence) to a team that will still need key contributions from eight underclassmen.

Toughest Stretch

I don’t know. Is there an obvious tough multiple-game stretch similar to previous years? The three game home stand mentioned above? Maybe the final four games of the season? Syracuse (home), Clemson (road), Boston College (road), and Duke (home), provide a mix of road games and talent. Syracuse and Clemson both had surprise success in the tournament last year.

However, Syracuse’s ACC record the past four seasons is 36-36. Clemson hasn’t finished above .500 in the ACC in consecutive seasons since Brad Brownell took the reigns. Boston College hasn’t finished with an overall record above .500 in consecutive seasons since Al Skinner was the coach. I’m unconvinced all three, much less one, will be a major threat next February, which is when Roy tends to have the Heels playing at their best.

It’s too early to make any predictions, but if you’re dreaming of a #1 seed, ACC regular season title, and a deep March run, then you aren’t crazy. I’m comfortable saying UNC’s ceiling is 28-3, while its floor is no worse than 24-7. This schedule is that favorable.

Just to be safe though, ask me again in January.

It is only September.

This is the ACC.

These things never go according to plan.