CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Forecasting the ACC race during the preseason is often an exercise of futility beyond the perennial staples. However, in certain years, such as this 2016-17 season for No. 9 North Carolina, the schedule sets up for a smooth entry into league play before turning brutal by year’s end.
Three of UNC’s five ACC wins have come against teams in the bottom half of the conference standings (N.C. State, Wake Forest, Clemson). The Tar Heels will play three more teams with current losing records in league play by the end of January.
There is credence to the thought that a team can only play the teams on its schedule, and UNC has managed well enough, building a 5-1 ACC record to share the conference lead with No. 10 Florida State and No. 15 Notre Dame. Despite dropping their league opener at Georgia Tech, the Tar Heels secured a needed home win over the Seminoles on Saturday.
UNC closes the month at Boston College (2-4) on Saturday, against Virginia Tech (3-3) at the Smith on Jan. 26, at Miami (2-3) on Jan. 28 and then against Pittsburgh (1-5) at home on Jan. 31.
Then the fun begins.
The Tar Heels open February at home against No. 15 Notre Dame before traveling to No. 18 Duke and N.C. State for rivalry road games. UNC’s last five games include four ranked opponents (Duke, No. 12 Louisville and No. 16 Virginia twice) and a road trip to Pittsburgh.
Six of UNC’s final eight games are against teams ranked in the RPI’s Top-25, while the other two opponents (N.C. State, Pittsburgh) are road games. Kenpom.com’s advanced metrics have the Tar Heels favored in all but two of their final eight games, although five are forecasted as single-digit victories.
“It’s the ACC and everybody’s going to bring their ‘A’ game, regardless if you’re a top tier team or a lower tier team,” junior point guard Joel Berry said this week. “I just know that every time I look at [the schedule], I feel like we have to bring our all because we’re UNC and it’s the ACC.”
The Tar Heels encountered a similar difficult stretch to close the 2015-16 regular season, posting a 6-4 record over their final 10 games after an 8-0 start to conference play.
The key for the Tar Heels in building off their current five-game winning streak is a continued dominance on the backboards – UNC leads the country with a plus-14.4 rebound margin – and maintaining their defensive edge to match their offensive efficiency.
“The biggest thing is that we’re playing better defense,” junior wing Justin Jackson said. “We’re keeping the ball in front of us a little bit more so that we don’t have to help as much. We’re just taking it more serious. And with that, we’re able to turn some defense into offense. That’s when we’re at our best. If we can do that and continue to stay aggressive on the boards and remain unselfish, I think we can do some big things.”
UNC ranks 10th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency (91.0) and 11th in adjusted offensive efficiency (119.0), according to kenpom.com.