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Tar Heel Hangover: Looking at UNC Basketball’s path forward

With no place to go but up, it is time to look ahead.

NCAA Basketball: Virginia at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the Tar Heel Hangover. This is our opportunity to review last week’s games, second-guess all of the key moments, and set the game plan for the week ahead.

The Elevator Speech: What happened last week.

Another week, another buzzer beating loss. Rinse. Repeat. The Wake Forest game was certainly an unfocused and poor effort, but the team came out with a lot of fight against Virginia. Unfortunately, they did not have enough to hold on to a one point lead with 10 seconds remaining.

Water Cooler Discussion: If I were the coach . . .

It is time to just focus on the future. The injuries, the calls, the inability to win close games. These are factors that created the reality of the season. There is nothing that can be done now to change the outcomes of those games or to instantly generate a fully healthy roster. In the spirit of mustering what little optimism remains, I am focusing on the next month instead of the last three.

The Heels currently sit at a record of 10-15. That means the team must play 5 games over .500 the rest of the way in to qualify for the National Invitation Tournament. Such a run appears unlikely.

With Monday’s game at Notre Dame, Carolina starts a stretch of playing four of the final six on the road. Clearly, this UNC team can compete with anyone in the league, but winning on the road is difficult even in a down year for the conference.

When the Heels met Notre Dame way back in November, it was a very different season indeed. The Irish are an average team, much like most of the rest of the league. They sit at 15-10 overall and sport a losing record in the conference (6-8). This is a must win game to keep the slim chances of a post-season bid alive.

Next follows a trip to Louisville. Realistically, this Tar Heel team is not equipped to hope for a win on the road. I believe the Cards are the best team in the conference and are the most poised for a lengthy run in the postseason. They are a deep team with excellent leadership and the ability to score from all over the court.

Carolina will return home next week to host NC State. The first meeting was one of the few times this season that the Heels put together a complete performance. Look for another such outcome on the 25th for the 12th victory of the year and the fifth in the conference.

Up next will be a trip to Syracuse. The Orange currently sit at 7-7 in the conference but have a pedestrian overall record of 14-11. Normally one would think that the zone would wreak havoc on a team that can not shoot from the outside. Look for Roy Williams to employ the high-low tandem that has been very successful of late against Boeheim’s teams. A few years ago it was Luke Maye from the free throw line causing damage. Then it was Theo Pinson. Coby White torched the Orange last year. This year, it will be Garrison Brooks knocking down 15 footers and finding Armando Bacot underneath.

The story against Wake Forest will be much different the second time around. If the team can win three of the next four, then it will be on a bit of a roll when the Demon Deacons visit Chapel Hill. Let’s call it four of five with a home victory on Senior Night and a 14-16 overall record.

As usual, the team will finish the year against Duke. Crazy things always happen when these two meet, but it would be an upset of epic proportions for the good guys to win in the Cameron high school gym on the Blue Devils’ Senior Night. A loss caps the regular season at 14-17 overall and 7-13 in the conference.

Now, here is the tricky part; for this plan to work, the Heels must finish in the bottom four of the league (not including post season ineligible Georgia Tech). Five teams currently have 6 wins and only three, including last place Carolina, have fewer. A first round Tuesday game in the ACC Tournament would provide a much needed win possibility. Wednesday would then bring a match-up against the 5th or 6th place team (currently NC State and Syracuse). Another victory would bring on either the 3rd or 4th place team. Winning four games in four days, including semifinal Friday, would lock in a .500 season regardless of the final.

Is this all unlikely? Absolutely. Is it impossible? Not at all. There have a been a lot of tough breaks but this team can absolutely play with anyone in the conference. The short bench will bring a lot of fatigue to the miracle run in Greensboro, but one should never count out a team with this much pent up frustration.

It’s time for karma to smile on these Heels.