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UNC Basketball: What the road to the NCAA Tournament could look like

Can the Tar Heels pull off one of the most improbable runs in ACC history?

Wake Forest v North Carolina Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

We have officially entered uncharted territory, as the North Carolina Tar Heels are in do-or-die mode to get into the NCAA Tournament. Now that the team has finished the regular season with a painful 13-18 season record, the Heels’ only hope is to win five games in the ACC Tournament in order to earn an automatic March Madness bid. To pull this off would be monumental, especially considering some of the teams they would have to get through in order to get the job done. However, this is the 2019-20 NCAA basketball season, and any and all possibilities are on the table.

Now that the ACC Tournament bracket is set, what does UNC’s likely path to an NCAA Tournament bid look like? Let’s start with what we know: the Tar Heels will face off against Virginia Tech Tuesday night, a team that took them to double-overtime earlier in the season before coming away with the two-point victory. UNC was a bit more efficient in that game, but Mike Young’s perimeter-oriented offense ultimately prevailed as the Hokies nailed 14 three-pointers to the Heels’ seven makes. Thankfully Brandon Robinson and Cole Anthony, two shooters that weren’t available in the first game, should be available this time around. Hopefully this is enough to tip the scale in UNC’s favor.

If the Heels move onto Wednesday, they will take on Syracuse. Jim Boeheim’s 2-3 zone got torn apart a couple of weeks ago by Cole Anthony and Garrison Brooks, who collectively scored 51 of UNC’s 92 points. The ball movement in that game was excellent, and it was especially impressive that Anthony was able to navigate the zone so well as a freshman point guard. The good news is we know that the defensive scheme will literally not be any different if these two teams square off again, but whether or not the shots fall the same for the Tar Heels would ultimately decide how this game goes.

If the Orange fail to get rid of them, Carolina would take on Louisville on Thursday. There were a number of close losses that UNC suffered this regular season, but the game against the Cards wasn’t one of them. Jordan Nwora and Malik Williams had solid performances that night, and Louisville’s defense kept the Heels from getting a whole lot going offensively. The Cardinals have undoubtedly had some struggles down the stretch themselves, as they lost four of the final seven games of the season. However, considering what happened last time, it’d be one of the bigger uphill battles that Carolina would have to face to win the ACC Championship.

Virginia would be the likely opponent should UNC survive against Louisville. The Cavaliers swept their series against the Tar Heels this season, with the second game being won off an excruciating buzzer-beater. It’s always tough when trying to figure out how to get the best of Tony Bennett’s teams, but if the Heels were to pull it off it’d likely start with cutting off the head of the snake that is Kihei Clark. While his shooting numbers weren’t great in either games, he did a very good job at facilitating Virginia’s offense, racking up 15 assists in both games combined. Navigating the defense would be a task in and of itself, but disrupting Clark would be perhaps the biggest key to moving onto the ACC Championship game.

Finally, should the Heels pull off the improbable and make it to the ACC title game, they would likely have to deal with either Florida State or Duke. The game against the Seminoles during the regular season went how many of the games went, which was being down a key player. Brandon Robinson was out with an injury, and yet the Heels managed to only lose by six points. Would B-Rob playing in this game be enough to top them? He would have to be, otherwise Leonard Hamilton would be looking at his team’s first ACC title sweep.

Should the Heels run into Duke for round three, there are two ways that things would play out. The first being that the Duke team that lacked intensity and mental fortitude in the first game shows up and the Heels give them the fight of their lives. The other possibility is that Senior Night Duke shows up, in which case would make it very, very difficult for the Heels to come away with the victory. It’s also no secret that Coach K has done a very good job at having his team ready for ACC Tournament games against UNC, so the odds would likely be stacked against Roy Williams’ squad.

Needless to say, the road to the NCAA Tournament for the Tar Heels is extremely difficult, and is one that no other team in the country would envy. The ACC has undoubtedly been weird this season, but the top of the conference has outdone the Tar Heels at every turn. They have a chance to pull it off, but it would be a miracle run that would go down as arguably the most miraculous run in school history. Dig out your lucky attire, purchase your favorite beverage, and buckle up. Tar Heel fans are going to be in for quite a ride.