The Road Ahead

The Road Ahead

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – North Carolina begins its ACC schedule at Virginia on Saturday, and thanks to a down year in the league, wins will be at a greater premium than usual over the next nine weeks as the Tar Heels hope to return to the NCAA Tournament after sitting out the Big Dance last season.

Duke, the nation's unanimous No. 1 team, continues to be the lone ACC program ranked in either of the top-25 polls. While the ACC has experienced some lean years recently, the 2010-11 season may go down as the worst in quite some time.

According to CollegeRPI.com, the ACC currently ranks fifth in the conference rankings, one spot back of the Mountain West. Duke (No. 7), Boston College (No. 25), Miami (No. 26) and North Carolina (No. 29) are the only league members ranked in the RPI Top-50.

The ACC has always thrived on teamwork to pad its number of NCAA entrants, playing the role of that one group that consistently wins the team-building activities at quirky work retreats. The plan for the average ACC program has long been simple – enter conference play with a respectable record, scratch out an 8-8 record, then book your travel and pack your dancing shoes.

But times have changed. For a league that has perennially built its RPI stature on in-conference contests, the opportunity to ride a comrade's coattails to March Madness is all but over – at least for this season.

"You've got half of the league outside of the top-100 in the RPI, which is unusual for this league," said Jerry Palm of CollegeRPI.com. "Then you've got another team at No. 93 in Florida State. So there's one legitimate team that you know for sure is going to make the NCAA Tournament and that's Duke, and nobody else can say, even at this late stage, that they feel comfortable about making the tournament."

The old belief was that a 10-win season in the ACC would clinch a team's selection into the NCAA Tournament, but Virginia Tech dispelled that myth last season after failing to get in with a 23-8 (10-6 ACC) record. The reason? A No. 58 RPI and a No. 133 strength of schedule ranking.

"Wake Forest (7-8) would need more than 10," Palm said. "For North Carolina, 10 might be enough. It really depends. I can't even answer that question in the middle of February, because it depends so much on what other teams do. Ten wins may be enough, but it may not. I wouldn't count on 10 wins being enough for anybody, necessarily. Certainly, it depends on where you start, and at this point, Carolina, Miami and even Boston College are a little bit further ahead than other teams."

North Carolina's resume includes the 21st-ranked strength of schedule in the country, but only a 1-4 record against RPI Top-50 teams. The victory over No. 10 Kentucky (No. 5 RPI) on Dec. 4 serves as the lone bright spot on UNC's tournament credentials.

"It's the only plus on their resume at this point," Palm said. "They haven't beaten anybody of any significance away from home and it's their only top-50 win, so it certainly is a plus. It may still be the biggest plus at the end of the year, but right now it's the only plus."

Roy Williams lamented his team's loss to No. 12 Texas on the ACC teleconference earlier this week, in which the Tar Heels led by seven with 5:43 left to play but were unable to hold off a late Longhorn rally on Dec. 18. Texas currently stands No. 36 in the RPI rankings.

"We want the league to do well and the whole bit, but the bottom line is we've got to get in games and play well and win," Williams said. "We did some really nice things in the Texas game, but we needed to win that game."

If there's a positive to a weak ACC season, it's that North Carolina should – in theory – have an easier time in collecting victories for the win column.

Williams told reporters on Friday that his biggest concern revolves around lowering his team's field goal percentage defense (40.0, 6th ACC), while also pointing to a reduction in turnovers (12.2 pg over last 5) and a higher field goal percentage (49.8 over last 5) in recent weeks.

And while others have pointed out the record similarities between this UNC team and the '09-10 edition – 10-4 vs. 11-4 – coaches and players have both ended the parallels there.

"I think we're playing harder, we're playing better together, we're moving the ball better [and] we're playing better defense," junior forward Tyler Zeller said. "So pretty much, I think we're doing everything just a little bit better than we were last year."

The Tar Heels begin their quest on Saturday to bury last season's ACC memories and win enough games to return to the NCAA Tournament after enjoying the trips to Starkville, Miss. and Birmingham, Ala. that came with inclusion to the NIT last March.

The most difficult obstacle in North Carolina's path, as usual, is a pair of meetings with the top-ranked Blue Devils. But as it turns out, two games against Duke could actually be desirable in this weakened ACC state of play.

"The difference this year from other years in the ACC is that Duke's the only team you can pad your resume with," Palm said.

As if North Carolina needed any more reason to beat their neighbors eight miles down 15-501.

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