CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – With a little more than two weeks left in the regular season, No. 10 North Carolina is where it wants to be, sitting alone atop the ACC standings. However, No. 14 Virginia’s arrival on Saturday begins a defining five-game closing stretch stacked with four ranked opponents.
The Tar Heels have been here before. Just last season, UNC jumped out to an 8-0 record in conference play before hanging on for the regular season title with a 6-4 record in its final 10 games against a backloaded schedule.
The road to the postseason may be even more difficult this season with six teams within two games of first place in the ACC standings. UNC is 10-3, followed by No. 8 Louisville, No. 12 Duke and No. 17 Florida State at 9-4. No. 25 Notre Dame is 9-5 and the Cavaliers are currently in sixth place at 8-5.
After hosting Virginia on Saturday, UNC plays Louisville on Wednesday before playing Pitt and Virginia on the road in a 48-hour window. Then, of course, the Blue Devils come to town for the regular season finale. All but Pitt were tabbed as top-16 seeds by the NCAA Tournament’s selection committee during last weekend’s bracket preview show.
“This schedule, with all of those teams at the end, is by far the most difficult in the league, especially of the teams that are up there trying to be in the top half of the league,” UNC head coach Roy Williams said on Tuesday. “But the bottom line is you’ve got to play it. Playing Duke and Virginia, not playing them at all for 20 games and then all of a sudden playing them twice each in a two- or three-week period is pretty difficult getting your team ready.”
It’s only fitting that Virginia highlights this final gauntlet. ESPN’s College GameDay will be on campus, along with UNC’s top remaining 2017 recruit in Kevin Knox, who is taking his final official visit. Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson, who guided the Tar Heels past Virginia for last year’s ACC Tournament championship and into the national championship game, will also be honored.
Compounding the difficulty is the various styles of play on UNC’s final four opponents. Virginia’s methodical approach based in efficiency runs at seemingly half the speed of Louisville’s up-tempo style, while Duke’s perimeter reliance is a yearly challenge. Even Pitt, despite its positioning near the bottom of the ACC standings, plays a small lineup with tall guards that proved problematic in Chapel Hill last month.
The level of prep involved for each team limits UNC’s downtime, despite a persistent stream of injuries that has kept Williams from having his full stable of players in all but four games this season. That number will not increase as starting shooting guard Kenny Williams is out 4-to-6 weeks with a right knee injury.
“It’s harder to take more time off because I think we need to do more things in practice, but yet I think you’ve got to have fresh legs,” Williams said.
Not that his Tar Heels are worried about the road ahead.
“This is what we come to this school for,” junior wing Justin Jackson said after UNC’s 97-73 win over N.C. State on Wednesday. “My opinion is that the ACC is the best conference in the United States. We have a really hard stretch coming up, but we have to continue to do the things that we’ve done so far this season, whether that’s shooting before or after practice, or getting in there by yourself. We also have to rest our bodies and get treatment and things like that. It’s what we come here to do, so we have to take it extremely serious.”
Confidence was a key component in last season’s deep run, according to junior wing Theo Pinson, and that strong belief in their play was born out of the ACC fire. UNC beat six teams that reached the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16, including five ACC opponents. While the postseason doesn’t officially begin until March 7 at the ACC Tournament in Brooklyn, this final battle for the top of the conference standings is a precursor for what’s to come.
“If you beat teams in the ACC, you understand that you have a chance to win that big goal,” Pinson said. “We won the regular season last year and this is the way you want to win it, really. You want to beat the best teams. We’ve got a tough stretch coming up and we’re going to see if we’re ready for the challenge.”