When the ACC basketball schedule was released in September, there was a very obvious theme to the layout of North Carolina’s 18-game sequence:
- A difficult five-game stretch with three road games against upper-echelon ACC teams;
- A six-game midseason window presenting an opportunity to pile up wins;
- The Duke game sandwich in the home stretch, seven games in which the Heels have five games against preseason top-5 ACC teams, a trip to Syracuse...and a trip to State.
The Heels, to an objective observer, have survived the first stretch fine—a close loss at Florida State was not unexpected, and an ugly loss at Virginia seems to be an annual rite. Home wins over Wake and Boston College have the Heels at an even 2-2, with a tricky trip to Notre Dame looming.
With the injuries to Preseason ACC Player of the Year Bonzie Colson and floor general Matt Farrell, Notre Dame has treaded water, with only one ACC loss. The loss? A 60-53 defeat at Georgia Tech on Wednesday night, which should serve notice that its open season on leprechauns.
As Notre Dame attempts to discover a new identity for the heart of ACC play, North Carolina has a major opportunity to get to 9-2 before the brutal closing stretch.
A win in South Bend would qualify as a coup for the 2017-18 Heels. After seven straight years with winning road ACC records (nobody else has accomplished the feat more than one year consecutively, currently), the Heels can get to 1-2 against the Irish, ranked #17 by Sagarin, which is based on previous performance and doesn’t account for injuries.
After Notre Dame, the Heels (ranked #10 by the same metric, by the way) face the following six tests:
- #30 Clemson in Chapel Hill, where the Tigers are 0-58. Clemson has been a pleasant surprise at 14-1, but we’ve seen a light nonconference schedule lead to Tiger disappointment before.
- #103 Georgia Tech at home. The Jackets have been a plucky opponent for the Heels in the recent past, but they’re 8-7 and the Heels should cruise.
- at #44 Virginia Tech, on a quick Monday night turnaround. This qualifies as the trap game of the group, as the Hokies sit at 13-4 (2-2) with a tight loss at Kentucky on the resume.
- #61 N.C. State at home. Roy ain’t letting them lose this one. As a bonus, the Heels get five days to prep for the new-look Wolfpack.
- at #30 Clemson: this works under the assumption that Clemson continues to falter in the ACC under Brad Brownell. Hopefully a 30-point home win earlier in the month carries over to suburban Lake Hartwell.
- #162 Pitt at home. I’m currently watching Kevin Stallings’ sad group trail Duke by about 30 at home. This is about as easy a win as there is on the Carolina schedule.
Among those teams, Clemson’s Marcquise Reed is the only top-10 scorer in the ACC, 10th at 15.9 points per game— so the “someone lights us up for 40 a la Tyrese Rice” excuse is unlikely. Georgia Tech’s Ben Lammers and Clemson’s Elijah Thomas/Donte Grantham combo are the only top-12 rebounders, so maybe there’s a Clemson advantage on the boards...except they rank 92nd in rebounding margin. Carolina is ranked 1st.
This is the ACC, where it is unsafe to take anything for granted. A cynic would say “don’t look ahead that far”, but I’m a fan and have absolutely no impact on team performance.
The fact is this: if this team plans to meet even its most modest expectations (ACC top four, second weekend in March), these are all games the Heels should win. Veteran leaders Joel Berry, Luke Maye, and Theo Pinson need to underscore the importance of having focus every game. The freshmen, who, to a man, have struggled since the schedule heated up, need to take a step in confidence and competence against lesser competition.
Given a closing stretch where finishing 4-3 would be a legitimate accomplishment, the Tar Heels can (and should) win the next seven.