Pivotal Stretch Ahead

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Even with a weak ACC this season, No. 5 North Carolina was bound to encounter a difficult stretch of games that would help define its season. The next eight days provide the barometer that will either set UNC up for a No. 1 national seed or knock them down the ACC ladder.

The Tar Heels (19-3, 6-1 ACC) are currently in a three-way tie atop the ACC with No. 7 Duke and No. 21 Florida State. After Saturday's road game at Maryland – where UNC hasn't won since 2006 – the Tar Heels welcome the Blue Devils and No. 16 Virginia (18-3, 5-2 ACC) to the Smith Center next Wednesday and Saturday, respectively.

The potential positives of this three-game stretch are substantial. In a league where eight teams rank outside of the NCAA's RPI top-50, an opportunity to notch a third road win in conference play along with victories over two top-40 RPI programs – Duke ranks No. 2 and UVa is No. 39 – would go a long way in erasing the 33-point meltdown at Florida State that has found a nesting area in observers' minds.

That hurdle has North Carolina currently positioned as No. 2 national seed in most pundits' far-too-early brackets. While that seeding would still allow UNC to play its first two games in Greensboro, N.C., it would also mean that the Tar Heels would miss out on playing in the South Region and its host city in Atlanta.

As was the case in 2010-11, the team that emerges out of the ACC – likely UNC or Duke – will be well positioned for that No. 1 seed in the South. A victory against Duke on Wednesday is then a must considering the regular season finale will be played at Cameron Indoor.

The potential negatives of this eight-day run are equally as troublesome. Most may point to Maryland's 3-4 conference record and transitional period as first-year head coach Mark Turgeon works into the program as reasons for UNC to coast on Saturday, but Tuesday's victory at Wake Forest should serve as warning that road wins don't come easy in this league.

North Carolina's victory over the Demon Deacons also provided a glimpse of the narrow margin of error that the Tar Heels are operating on with regard to injuries.

With Harrison Barnes in the locker room during the first half nursing a sprained ankle, North Carolina's depth issues were glaring. Leslie McDonald and Dexter Strickland were dressed to the nines on the bench recovering from knee injuries, leaving freshman P.J. Hairston as the lone option to fill Barnes's void on the wing.

One first-half time stamp had Hairston, Stilman White, Reggie Bullock, Tyler Zeller and John Henson all on the floor together. That speaks to the limited options at Roy Williams' disposal.

The ninth-year UNC head coach told reporters on Friday that he was "confident" that Barnes would play, but added the disclaimer that if Barnes's ankle hurt him during practice on Friday afternoon, the sophomore may not play. Barnes sat out Thursday's practice after experiencing swelling on Wednesday and needing crutches for part of the day.

Kendall Marshall also suffered an ankle injury this week, according to Williams, but practiced on Thursday.

North Carolina's three-games-in-six days stretch ended in Winston-Salem and the staff gave the team Wednesday off and pulled back on Thursday's practice.

"We tried to give our guys their legs back some [on Thursday] – everybody," Williams said. "We had probably the shortest practice we've had all year that was not the day before a game [on Thursday]."

Two days of light work, however short, appears to have accomplished its goal.

"It's always nice to be able to get your legs back, especially in the middle of the season when you're getting a little run down," senior Tyler Zeller said.

Now comes the midseason ACC window that can elevate UNC back to its preseason levels or threaten its top-5 ranking and possible No. 1 seed.

This season hasn't quite gone according to plan for most Tar Heel fans, and they're not alone.

"I've been disappointed, frustrated probably more so this year than I've been elated, but that's because I have big-time dreams and big-time goals," Williams said. "… But I think we're getting better. I really believe that. That's my biggest goal every year – for us to improve from one week or one month to the next."

Williams told reporters in the fall that he thought there were six or seven teams good enough to win the national title, UNC included, and he updated that on Friday to suggest that there are probably even more teams that should be added to list.

But while the media will focus on North Carolina's play over the next three games in deciding where the boys in blue belong in the power rankings, the Tar Heels are taking the necessary approach of looking forward only as far as their next opponent.

"You really do have to focus on Maryland," Zeller said. "Maryland's a tough team… Any ACC opponent can come out and beat you on any given night. If Wake shoots better, they've got a chance to beat us. So it's something where you've got to prepare as much as possible for every team and you can't look too far forward because that's when you get yourself in trouble."

The Tar Heels and Terrapins tip off at 4pm at the Comcast Center on Saturday (ESPN).

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