Look back at what North Carolina has accomplished over the last two seasons:
- Combined 66-14 overall record (28-8 in the ACC)
- Back-to-back ACC Regular Season Champions
- Two national championship appearances
- 2017 National Champions
- 2016 ACC Player of the Year
- 2017 Final Four Most Outstanding Player
It’s easy to see why there is always so much expected from North Carolina basketball. For many fans, it’s “natty-or-bust” and they won’t accept anything less. For fans of the pessimistic persuasion, there’s always that worst-case, self-fulfilling prophecy that will most likely play out because it’s “just our luck.”
For the 2017-2018 Tar Heels’ basketball squad, there is a wide range of what could happen this season; and a lot of it depends on the health of Joel Berry.
Worst Case Scenario
Momma always said start with the bad news first, so the good news seems that much sweeter.
Floor general and senior leader Joel Berry is already out with an injury to his dominant hand. How long that injury will last is still uncertain. The original timeline was announced as four weeks, and Berry has been practicing some with the team, working mainly on keeping his conditioning up and his left hand ball skills.
However, let’s say the injury takes longer to heal than expected and Berry misses the the matchup against Stanford and the Phil Knight Invitational in Portland. North Carolina could see a few losses over that span. Stanford, although unranked, returns its top three scorers and one of only five players (junior forward Reid Travis) in to finish the season ranked in the top five in their conference in both scoring and rebounding. Head coach (and former UNC assistant) Jerod Haase also has the advantage of playing the Tar Heels on their first game during a west coast trip. This could be a gotcha-game if the Tar Heels are forced to play without their leader.
The Phil Knight Invitational also poses a few threats in the second and third rounds. North Carolina has potential matchups with teams that include Arkansas, Oklahoma, Oregon, UConn, and Michigan State. Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Oregon all received votes in the preseason polls while Michigan State was tabbed as the second-best team behind Duke. No matter which way the Tar Heels fall, they will face a tough opponent.
Record: 3-3 (Wins over NIU, Bucknell, and Portland; Losses to Stanford, and two other teams in Portland)
The Tar Heels are finally home and Joel Berry is finally back. North Carolina will immediately dive into the brunt of their non-conference schedule. Games against Michigan, and Tennessee at home and at Ohio State pose serious problems. Berry has been out since early October and it takes him a few games to get acclimated to the on-court chemistry with Cameron Johnson and the freshman post players.
Record: 7-6 (Wins over Davidson, Tulane, WCU, and Wofford; Losses to Michigan, Tennessee, and Ohio State)
Now the Tar Heels enter ACC play and they haven’t been able to find that rhythm and cohesiveness that they need to put together wins. Berry is going through a shooting slump and is noticeably different following his injury. The Tar Heels have experienced the same bad luck as the football team when it comes to injuries (*Knocks on all the wood I can find*) and the freshmen have not developed as well as hoped.
North Carolina struggles with the talent and depth of the ACC, especially against top-tier teams Duke, Louisville, Notre Dame, and Miami. The Tar Heels do find a way to beat lower-tier teams like Wake Forest, NC State, Boston College, Syracuse, Pitt. Overall, the Heels struggle on the road, winning only one ACC road game.
North Carolina is able to keep the streak alive against Clemson in the Smith Center and push their record to 59-0.
Regular Season Record 14-17 (ACC 7-11)
Wins over WF, BC, Clemson, GT, NCSU, Pitt, and @ Syracuse
Losses to @ FSU, @ UVA, ND (2), VT, @ Clemson, Duke (2), @ NCSU, @ Louisville, Miami
The Tar Heels actually make it to the ACC Tournament as the 11 seed. They face off against 14th seeded Boston College and win. Then, they will face 6th seeded Louisville. The Tar Heels will be able to pull the upset over the Cardinals and advance to the Quarterfinals, where they face 3rd seeded Notre Dame. They will play Notre Dame close, but will not have enough to get the victory.
However, this will be enough for the Tar Heels to hear their name called on Selection Sunday as they enter the field of 68 as a 10-12 seed. They will win the first game and then fizzle out in the Round of 32.
Final Record 17-19 (7-11)
Best Case Scenario
Joel Berry’s hand is completely healed and he is back in action earlier than expected as he suits up for the matchup against Stanford. The first half is rough as Berry has to shake off the cobwebs and become familiar with his teammates. After a stern “talkin-to” from Coach Williams, Berry finds his groove in the second half and the Tar Heels win by double digits.
The Heels head out to Portland with an unblemished record. They successfully take down Portland, Oklahoma, and then Michigan State (albeit in a close, overtime contest) for the inaugural crown.
Record: 6-0 (Wins over NIU, Bucknell, Stanford, Portland, Oklahoma, and MSU)
Now the Tar Heels travel back home for the rest of their non-conference schedule. Here they continue to roll until they inexplicably lose on a trip to Tennessee. Then, just as things seem to be getting back on track, they lose again to Ohio State to round out their non-conference schedule.
Record: 11-2 (Wins over Michigan, Davidson, Tulane, WCU, and Wofford; Losses to Tennessee and Ohio State)
Jumping into ACC play, the Tar Heels make quick work of their first two opponents. However, the incredibly entertaining and fun-to-watch Tony Bennett pack-line defense will get the better of this young squad and UNC will get their first ACC loss.
Roy Williams then works some of his magic and the Heels learn from their mistakes. They go on an 11-0 run before falling face-first in their only matchup with Louisville. They turn it all around with a win over Miami, but fall short again against Duke in Cameron on Senior Night.
Regular Season Record: 26-5 (15-3 ACC)
Only ACC losses are @ UVA, @ Louisville, and @ Duke
North Carolina will enter the ACC Tournament as the 2nd seed and will roll through their games until the finale against Duke. Since Coach K seems to hold more value in the ACC Tournament than the following month, the Blue Devils will win the crown.
This won’t hurt the Tar Heels entering the Big Dance as they hear their name called as a 2 seed. After an easy first weekend, North Carolina will be paired up against a tough outing against a 3 seed. They will advance, but it will be a close game. North Carolina then finds themselves in a matchup with a dominate one-seed in Arizona. They find a way to win an extremely close and hard-fought contest. Finally, they then find themselves in a rematch in the Final Four against Michigan State. Remember earlier in this scenario, the Tar Heels took down the Spartans in Portland. This time, Tom Izzo will get the better of Roy Williams and North Carolina will be sent home after another trip to the Final Four.
Final Record: 31-7 (15-3 ACC) Final Four Appearance
Remember, these are only fictional scenarios. I do not think the Tar Heels will have a sub-.500 season. I also do not think this team has the firepower to get themselves to the Final Four. I predict that they will win the ACC Regular Season title, but they fall somewhere short in the NCAA Tournament in the Sweet 16 or Elite 8.