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UNC Basketball: Ceiling Check

What can we expect the rest of the way with conference play on the doorstep?

NCAA Basketball: Jumpman Invitational-North Carolina at Oklahoma Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

The ceiling is the... well, never mind.

As legendary as that joke has become, the North Carolina Tar Heels will likely be ranked inside next week’s AP Top-10, and that’s for real. It feels like it’s been ages since the Tar Heels were on the doorstep of the nation’s elite by the conclusion of non-conference play. It gives me great joy to say, though; that’s exactly where they are.

North Carolina hasn’t done everything right up to this point, but the level of basketball has been significantly raised from the last two regular seasons. It’d been four years since the Heels last took down a non-conference top-10 opponent—they’ve done it twice this season already.

There is a lot to be happy about in Chapel Hill, but where should we fans maintain our expectations as ACC play is on the horizon? There’s optimism, and then there’s reason; I am going to try to combine the best of both worlds and break down how I foresee this season continuing.

It’s hard to discuss the projected ACC success without discussing the elephant in the room: the caliber of the league. Check out this ACC Roundup to read more about where each team currently stands, but the bottom line is that, at the moment, it’s been underwhelming. Duke and Miami are hanging around the top-25, but not meeting expectations. Virginia and Clemson are also ranked around the late teens, but those squads, for different reasons, weren’t expected to be there either. Let’s just say it’s been a slightly unfamiliar road so far.

As of the time I am writing this, North Carolina only has seven remaining quad-1 win opportunities. That will change, but the message to consider is that it won’t be the night-in, night-out gauntlet that many of us are used to in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

These conditions can be a blessing and a curse for the Tar Heels. They should, for the most part, coast through the ACC. There just aren’t too many threats other than the ones I have previously mentioned. If they play like we have seen, UNC should rack up an abundance of wins. They will lack heavy opportunity for big victories, though, and that’s where they’ve been burned in years past. This factor also makes it difficult for North Carolina to advance seed lines against teams in the Big 12 and Big East that have quad-1 opportunities almost every time they step out onto the floor.

If the Heels can get 14 or more ACC wins, you’d suspect they’re a lock for a top 4 seed. Don’t take my word on that projection, but it feels like that’s about the number that should get it done, and reaching that is absolutely attainable. I think North Carolina is the best team in the Atlantic Coast Conference, but I also suspect teams will emerge, and the competitiveness of the conference will rise as the year churns on.

In four of the last five seasons, the Tar Heels have entered ACC play with three or fewer non-conference losses. The difference between this year and 2018-19 compared to the others is the caliber of wins North Carolina possesses heading into this stretch. In eleven total games, UNC has played seven power conference opponents. Five of those were ranked. It’s been a gauntlet thus far, and you have to be happy with where the Tar Heels stand.

Those previous teams merged off to different paths, but the patterns suggest that this edition of North Carolina is suited for long-term success. Elliot Cadeau and Zayden High are only going to get better. There is still room to gel with four transfers playing significant minutes. Armando Bacot hasn’t exactly reached his potential yet, and RJ Davis... what can I even say?

I don’t know exactly where North Carolina will be ranked on Monday, but that number will probably feel about right in terms of their stock. They haven’t quite cracked the best of the best, but they’re knocking on the door. I suspect that is the same conversation we will have as the season progresses. Their ability is elite and we know that, but it may be hard to prove that consistently with the current landscape of the ACC.

What’s been so promising so far is that North Carolina has taken care of business when they needed to. Like I mentioned, they didn’t get a couple of big wins, but they really were starving for that victory over Oklahoma on Wednesday night, and they got it. If this remains in their personality as a team, the ceiling continues to raise in terms of metrics and ranking down the stretch.

All that to say this: the ceiling is high. I’m not sure it’s number-one-seed-high or National Championship high—at least yet—but there’s no reason the Tar Heels shouldn’t be in the thick of it come March. I believe this is a Final Four quality team when at its best, and the assumption that we haven’t seen that yet is highly compelling.

Could UNC win the ACC regular season and tournament and be a one seed? Sure. But consulting with my reasonable side, I don't see it. With that being said, they're built for success, and the ceiling may not be much lower than that. I guess all there is left to do is sit back and watch, and the questions will begin to answer themselves.

Where do you think the ceiling is for the Tar Heels? Let’s hear your thoughts in the comments below.

See ya later, Big Grits.