But in this season that has swept aside the notion of reloading and instead focused on rebuilding, the longtime rival potentially holds UNC's fate in its hands.
A Tar Heel victory in Raleigh on Tuesday night moves the boys in blue to 2-3 in ACC play with upstart Virginia coming to town on Sunday night. Take care of business against the Cavaliers and UNC is back to .500 and brimming with confidence.
A loss drops North Carolina to 1-4 in conference play with four of the next seven on the road and a home clash with Duke directly in the middle.
In other words, if the Tar Heels lose to the Wolfpack for only the second time in Roy Williams' tenure as UNC's head coach, it's likely that his streak of 20 consecutive NCAA appearances – second only to Dean Smith's 23 – will come to an end this March.
"We know that we have to turn this thing around," freshman forward Travis Wear told reporters during UNC's press conference on Monday. "Teams in the past have lost a few games in ACC play and have turned it around. We know we can do the same. We know we've got to start playing."
ABC fans have long labeled Roy Williams as an excellent recruiter and a so-so X's & O's coach, but the seventh-year UNC head man is attempting to add more evidence to the plethora of available information in refuting that charge.
The Tar Heels spent two hours watching game tape on Thursday before a short practice session that afternoon. After giving the players Friday off, Williams challenged his players in extended practices on Saturday and Sunday.
If someone committed a turnover during a scrimmage situation, the entire team stopped and headed for the baseline to run a 33. Losing any number of designed competitive activities also resulted in the joy of added running requirements.
"We've put in some hours and hopefully it's going to be something that will help us," Williams said. "The way we try to do it is just to invest a lot into it and see what happens… I don't know how to do things other than just work harder and so that's what we're trying to do."
The players have consistently pointed to solid practice sessions over the past two months, but Wear indicated that his head coach had been more animated on the sidelines over the weekend, directing more intense practices with an emphasis on concentration and hustle.
"I'm excited to see how we come out and play tomorrow night, because the last two practices were more competitive than any I've ever been involved in so far," Wear said.
The news that sophomore forward Ed Davis (left ankle sprain) is questionable for Tuesday night's game against the Wolfpack is just another ding in a season-long battle with injury issues for this North Carolina squad. Combine those health concerns with several bad breaks in losses, whether it be Deon Thompson's late block call against Georgia Tech or the College of Charleston's late 3-pointer after the ball bounced off a player's foot, and the excuses are laid out on the trainer's table ready for use.
But the difference in great programs and average programs is that the former has no need for excuses while the latter hoards them for the next poor stretch of play.
"You can't keep talking and complaining about that," Williams said of the troubles thrown UNC's way. "Some dadgum time you've got to put your foot down and say, ‘I'm going to play better.' This ‘woe is me' stuff – you've got to put a stop to that. Sometimes you've got to put your foot down and say, ‘Today I'm going to play better.'
"And I'm doing that as a coach. Today I'm going to coach better. I can't imagine any time I've been more involved, more into it, more enthusiastic, critical, vocal – whatever you want to say – than I have been in practice since last Wednesday."
The Tar Heels are unranked for the first time since January 2006, and unless things dramatically improve on the court, they may miss the Big Dance for the first time since 2003.
"[UNC is] young, but they've got talent," N.C. State head coach Sidney Lowe said on Monday. "I'm just hoping that it all doesn't click against us. That's the scary part about it because when you know it's there, it can happen at anytime."
For a Tar Heel squad threatening to fumble away its chances for a NCAA Tournament berth, there's no time like the present.