In Search of a Quality Win

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – It might be 22 days before Santa Claus lands his sleigh in the quaint college town of Chapel Hill, but North Carolina likely needs an early Christmas present from the jolly old man in the form of a quality non-conference win for its NCAA Tournament resume.

Yes, the NCAA Tournament doesn't tip off for another 102 days. And yes, as Roy Williams has pointed out several times in recent weeks, his Tar Heels are young, inexperienced and have plenty of room for growth between now and Selection Sunday on Mar. 13.

But North Carolina's postseason resume started writing itself three weeks ago with the program's season-opening victory over Lipscomb. The Tar Heels, standing at 4-3 overall, have lost to all three power conference schools they have played – No. 15 Minnesota, Vanderbilt and No. 20 Illinois – and will take the court against No. 10 Kentucky on Saturday before squaring off against No. 19 Texas in Greensboro on Dec. 18.

So while the NCAA Tournament may appear to be in the distant future, how North Carolina fares against the Wildcats and Longhorns will provide some insight into the difficult nature of the Carolina blue road to the Big Dance.

One of the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee's hallmarks is a team's performance against opponents ranked in the RPI Top-50, and a victory in that category qualifies as a quality win. North Carolina is 0-3 in that heading thus far, and the contests against Kentucky and Texas would appear to be UNC's only other nonconference opportunities against teams likely to finish the season in the RPI Top-50.

Next week's opponent, Evansville, is currently ranked No. 31 in the RPI due to its upset win over Butler, but the Purple Aces were voted dead last in the Missouri Valley Conference preseason poll and are expected to struggle this season.

If UNC happens to lose to both the Wildcats and Longhorns while winning its other games, Carolina would enter ACC play with a 9-5 nonconference record and a projected 0-5 mark against the RPI Top-50. The ACC, which has already suffered losses to Kennesaw State, Old Dominion, Stetson and Winthrop, currently boasts three teams with top-50 ratings – Duke (9th), Miami (39th) and N.C. State (45th). That quantity is expected to increase as January and February arrive as the '10-11 season appears to to be on equal footing with the '09-10 campaign and its six top-50 members.

North Carolina will avoid Virginia Tech's fate last March of being left out of the NCAA Tournament with 10 ACC wins due to a weak strength of schedule, but a 9-7 conference mark would put UNC at 18-12 overall heading into the ACC Tournament. Wake Forest earned a No. 9 seed in the NCAA Tournament last season with a 19-10 (9-7 ACC) record and six wins over top-50 RPI opponents.

Georgia Tech served as the anomaly in '09-10, balancing a 7-9 ACC record with 22 wins, a victory over No. 5 Duke and an ACC Tournament championship game appearance to secure a No. 10 seed in the Midwest Regional.

In other words, a win over Kentucky or Texas would dramatically widen North Carolina's margin of error when ACC play arrives in five weeks.

"I think we need a big win," junior forward Tyler Zeller told reporters on Friday. "When tournament time comes around, you've got to have those big wins on your resume. Also, I think it can help turnaround our season a lot. So I think we need to beat either Kentucky or Texas, or both."

The Wildcats may present the best opportunity for the Tar Heels, considering John Calipari's second squad in Lexington is equally as young and inexperienced. Junior wing Darius Miller is the only Kentucky player to have started in a true road atmosphere like the Wildcats will encounter on Saturday afternoon.

"I expect a hostile environment," Kentucky freshman guard Brandon Knight said on Thursday. "Obviously a lot of boos, but honestly I have never played in it so I don't really know what to expect, but we will have to play together."

There is no such thing as must-win games during the month of December in college basketball, but securing a victory over a RPI Top-50 opponent in the next two weeks would go a long way in limiting the potential for must-win games in February and early March for UNC.

"We need that one big-time win, and I think tomorrow could be the chance for that," sophomore forward John Henson said.

It wouldn't hurt for the Tar Heels to go ahead and put that request on their list for Santa.

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