The Road Ahead

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – No. 1 North Carolina will be road-tested in its first three weeks of the season, playing five of its first eight games away from the Dean E. Smith Center and earning roughly 9,100 frequent flyer miles along the way.

The Tar Heels begin their travels on Wednesday as they depart for San Diego and the Carrier Classic against Michigan State aboard the USS Carl Vinson on Friday. Next up is a stop at UNC Asheville to open Kimmel Arena on Sunday.

Following a pair of home games against Mississippi Valley State and Tennessee State to tip off the Las Vegas Invitational on Nov. 20 and 22, UNC travels to Sin City to play South Carolina on Nov. 25 before facing UNLV or Southern Cal the next night.

No. 14 Wisconsin awaits North Carolina upon returning home in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge on Nov. 30, and then the Tar Heels close this difficult opening stretch with a showdown with No. 2 Kentucky at Rupp Arena in Lexington on Dec. 3.

In case you lost count, that's possibly five power conference opponents and a UNCA squad with four starters returning from its NCAA Tournament run last season.

"I hope there is some success that will give them a little confidence in being able to handle the different scenarios, different situations and different arenas," UNC head coach Roy Williams told reporters on Tuesday when asked about the first three weeks. "Not having your home crowd to make you play better or faster defensively and those kinds of things. But we have a pretty good team, so I think we should challenge them.

"If it was like '06 and '10, I would have been scared stiff, but we'll see how we respond."

This weekend will likely be the most difficult segment of this opening run.

The UNC-MSU game tips at 4:15pm PST and will immediately be followed with a concert by a yet-to-be-named act. There are no shower facilities for either team aboard the battleship, so a quick stop at the team hotel will be in order before the Tar Heels arrive at the airport for a red-eye flight.

Williams admitted the lack of a true locker room setting was a "logistical problem."

"This is a big challenge because it is an unusual circumstance and you have to be able to make adjustments on the fly," the ninth-year UNC head coach said.

Upon arriving in Asheville at approximately 5:30am Saturday morning, the players will have the luxury of a nap before an afternoon practice in preparation for Sunday's 4pm opening tip. Another late flight will allow the team to return to Chapel Hill in time for the start of classes on Monday morning.

While the opportunity of playing in the first college basketball game on an aircraft carrier, not to mention having the Commander-in-Chief in the stands, is not something the Tar Heels are taking lightly, it would be understandable if there were complaints about the hectic schedule and lack of sleep.

But those complaints were nonexistent on Tuesday as senior forward Tyler Zeller indicated the pros outweighed the cons.

"I think it's always great when you get on the road," Zeller said. "You get to spend time with your teammates, you get to get closer as a team, but I think with how much travel and how tired we will be by Sunday, it's something that we're all going to have to work together. It's going to be tough, but at the same time, I think this team is capable of doing it."

UNC will get a reprieve following the Kentucky matchup with a string of nine straight home games, but this early stretch will prep the Tar Heels for a postseason run that at most will include two games in the state of North Carolina.

"Any time you play against great caliber teams, you can gain a lot from it," Zeller said. "It's something that we always want to win, but you have to go out and give your best effort every game. You can't be complaining about being tired or ‘I just flew back and I only got four or five hours of sleep.' So it's something you've just got to be able to go through the adversity."

There are two similarities between this UNC squad and the national title teams of '05 and '09 – (1) all three teams will have traveled across the country to open the season and (2) all three teams played Michigan State at some point during the season.

The '11-12 edition hopes to move that record against the Spartans to 4-0 on Friday.


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