Last week, UNC’s list of opponents for the upcoming men’s basketball season was officially released. All out-of-conference opponents have dates and locations, while the dates of the ACC opponents are still being finalized. At first glance, it appears this season’s ACC schedule will be more challenging than last season’s. Whether or not the OOC schedule is easier or tougher likely depends on how much stock you place in name recognition compared to actual success on the basketball court.
Over the weekend, Akil Guruparan did some analysis on the entire schedule, so I am not going to rehash any of that. However, I was curious how this season’s schedule compares to previous schedules by Roy Williams—specifically the out of conference opponents. A quick google search let me compare the previous five season schedules, which lets us begin at the 2012-2013 season. This was the first season after UNC
won the 2012 National Championship went to the Elite Eight and proceeded to lose four players to the NBA draft.
It’s no secret that Williams prefers to provide his teams with a mix of true road games, neutral court games, and a pre-season tournament that replicates a March environment when possible. Of course, there are always the obligatory “guarantee” games at the Smith Center against (hopefully) inferior competition. This season has proven to be no different, and actually may be tougher than previous years.
For the purpose of this comparison, if the Heels traveled to play a team, but did not play at the actual “home” site of the opposition, I labeled it a “neutral” site. For example, when UNC travels to Charlotte this season to play Davidson, I am considering it a “neutral” site. I will annotate all such games in italics.
- ACC/B1G games will be annotated with an asterisk (*)
-Pre-season event games will be annotated in bold
Home: Northern Iowa, Bucknell, Michigan*, Tulane, Western Carolina, Wofford
Away: Stanford, Tennessee
Neutral: Portland, Ark/Oklahoma, MSU/Georgetown/Oregon/UCONN, Davidson, Ohio State
Takeaway: Whether UNC defeats Portland or not, the Heels will face six Power Five opponents before Christmas. While some of those teams have been down in recent years (OSU, Stanford), they still boast top-tier talent. Ohio State is this year’s CBS Sports Classic opponent. They can’t schedule Kentucky every season. Scheduling two true road games isn’t a common occurrence either.
Home: Chattanooga, Long Beach State, Radford, Davidson, Tennessee, Northern Iowa, Monmouth
Away: Indiana*, Hawaii
Neutral: Tulane, Chaminade, Oklahoma State, Wisconsin, Kentucky
Takeaway: We all know how this season turned out, so it’s hard to find anything wrong with these opponents. Five games against Power Five opponents and a Maui Championship is always impressive, but only Tennessee was truly scheduled by the Heels. Kentucky was arranged as part of the CBS Sports Classic event.
Home: Fairfield, Wofford, Maryland*, Davidson, Tulane, Appalachian St., UNC-G
Away: Northern Iowa, Texas
Neutral: Temple, Northwestern, Kansas State, UCLA
Takeaway: The Heels played five P5 teams, with the help of four different events. Only Texas was scheduled as an extra game. Overall, Temple (Veteran’s Classic), Northwestern, Kansas State, Wofford, Fairfield (CBE HoF Classic), Maryland (ACC/B1G Challenge), and UCLA (CBS Sports Classic) helped form UNC’s schedule. Once again, the Heels scheduled two true road games this season (they lost both).
Home: North Carolina Central, Robert Morris, Iowa*, Eastern Carolina, UAB, William and Mary
Neutral: Davidson, Butler, UCLA, Florida, UNC-Greensboro, Ohio State
Takeaway: First, it’s always fun to say ‘Eastern” Carolina. Second, this year’s schedule was a little unusual. The home slate was lackluster, and Kentucky was the only true road game. Neither Davidson (Bobcats Arena) and UNC-G (Greensboro Coliseum) were truly road games, but they weren’t really hostile or even neutral environments. Still, they played five P5 opponents thanks to the Battle 4 Atlantis and the CBS Sports Classic. For a young team led by Marcus Paige, it was a solid slate.
Home: Oakland, Holy Cross, Belmont, UNC-Greensboro, Kentucky, Texas, Davidson, Northern Kentucky, UNC-Wilmington
Away: UAB, Michigan State*
Neutral: Richmond, Louisville
Takeaway: Perhaps the most unusual schedule of the past five season. There were only four P5 opponents, and one lackluster early-season event with the Basketball Hall of Fame Tipoff. Losing to Belmont took the shine off that tournament. Two true road games appear to be a standard goal. A massive home slate helped a young team grow-up with minimal growing pains. (Reggie Bullock and P.J. Hairston both were surprising departures from the program, though for very different reasons).
Home: Gardner-Webb, Florida Atlantic, UAB, East Tennessee St., Eastern Carolina, McNeese St., UNLV
Away: Long Beach State, Indiana*, Texas
Neutral: Mississippi State, Butler, Chaminade,
Takeaway: Schedules are often made 1-3 years in advance, and UNC was obviously expecting an exodus of players from their Elite Eight team. As such, their total number of Power Five opponents dropped to three. Admittedly, two of those were on the road and three true road games are the most of the past five years. However, an overwhelmingly easier home slate saw the Heels go undefeated in the Smith Center prior to ACC play.
In the five previous seasons, UNC averaged 7.2 home games, two true road games, and four neutral court games. They have also averaged 4.4 Power 5 opponents every season. The past three seasons have seen five P5 opponents as the CBS Sports Classic, which UNC is a regular participant, helps add an extra P5 opponent at a neutral court.
This season the Heels have six home games, two true road games, and five neutral court games. The six P5 opponents are the most they have faced over that span. It may be the most the Heels have ever faced in an out-of-conference schedule. This is also the first time in at least the last five seasons that UNC scheduled two Power Five road games without relying on the ACC/B1G Challenge to account for one of the opponents.
What does it all mean? Honestly, it’s too early to tell. Teams exceed or fall short of expectations every season. It’s clear that Roy Williams tries to provide as many different environments as possible for his program, while still allowing the team the opportunities to be successful.
Compare that with Duke’s method of almost never playing a true road game. If you think I’m exaggerating, you would be wrong. Using the same parameters for road and neutral games, in the past five seasons Duke has only played two true road games.
Both of those were in 2014-2015 when they played at Wisconsin for the ACC/B1G Challenge and St. John’s...who plays their home games at Madison Square Garden. Though, even calling that a road game feels a little hypocritical—Duke has played nine games at the Garden since the 2012-2013 season. Last season, the lack of challenging environments may help explain why they crumbled against South Carolina last season in the second round. Maybe. Possibly.
“Friendly” rivalries aside, UNC has found a consistent, challenging formula. With fewer home games, more neutral court games, and more high-major competition than anyone can reasonably remember, this has the potential to turn into one of UNC’s toughest OOC schedules they’ve ever had.
This is going to be fun.