CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – No. 5 North Carolina will play one currently ranked opponent in its next seven games before closing the regular season with five ranked opponents in its final seven ACC contests.
When UNC (15-2) welcomed Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim back from a nine-game suspension with a loss on Saturday, the final result marked the first time since 2000-01 that it had started the ACC slate with a 4-0 record. It’s surprising that such a start represents a first during the Roy Williams era, although a closer look at the level of competition in the opening weeks of the conference schedule sheds some light on that statistic.
During the 2004-05 national championship season, the Tar Heels lost at No. 4 Wake Forest in its fourth game of ACC play. UNC lost again at No. 4 Wake Forest – this time the second game of the conference slate – during its national title run in 2008-09. And just last year, the Tar Heels’ lone loss in their first eight ACC games was to No. 13 Notre Dame in its second league contest.
None of the Tar Heels’ first four ACC opponents this season have been ranked. That quartet – Clemson, Georgia Tech, Florida State and Syracuse – have combined to lose 10 of its 14 ACC games to date. The Tigers (10-6, 3-1 ACC) have played well since losing for the 58th time in as many chances in Chapel Hill last month. The Yellow Jackets (11-5, 1-2 ACC) represent UNC’s lone top-75 RPI win in conference play (No. 40).
The four-game winning streak has a chance at longevity as three of UNC’s next four opponents (N.C. State, Wake Forest and Boston College) have losing records in ACC play and the fourth, Virginia Tech, is 10-6 overall (2-1 ACC).
The schedule turns difficult once January gives way to February. After a trio of road games to open the month – No. 21 Louisville, Notre Dame and Boston College – UNC’s final seven regular season games will serve as a challenging primer for postseason play.
The Tar Heels host No. 20 Pittsburgh (14-1, 3-0), No. 9 Duke (14-2, 3-0) and No. 8 Miami (13-2, 2-1) over an eight-day stretch before returning to the road for a rivalry matchup with N.C. State in Raleigh followed by a trip to Charlottesville to face No. 13 Virginia (13-3, 2-2). UNC closes the regular season at home against Syracuse before the finale at Duke.
KenPom.com projects an 8-0 start for UNC in ACC play and a 6-4 record over its final 10 games based on cumulative probabilities.
With NCAA Tournament opening weekend games being played at PNC Arena in Raleigh, it would be beneficial for the Tar Heels to capitalize on the first half of their ACC schedule to create a buffer for potential losses down the stretch in February and early March.
Fortunately, UNC is not alone with its backloaded schedule. Duke also plays five ranked opponents in its final seven games, while Virginia plays four.