The Tar Heels’ three losses in January came against three of the ACC’s top six schools and two of those losses were on the road. The lone home loss? ACC frontrunner Miami (9-0).
Due to ACC parity – home teams are 39-17 in league play to date – UNC (16-6, 6-3 ACC) was tasked with taking a basic strategic approach in building its NCAA resume – hold serve at home and steal W’s whenever possible on the road. The Tar Heels succeeded in that regard through the first half of the conference slate, winning four of five at the Smith Center and splitting their away games (2-2).
That midpoint result has aided UNC in two ways. First, the Tar Heels gained confidence by experiencing success. Each game played, regardless of outcome, pushes a team that much farther from its youth. Add in a healthy dose of winning, however, and confidence grows in line with experience.
Secondly, North Carolina’s 6-3 start increases the margin for error over the challenging second half the conference season. The Tar Heels are currently ranked No. 32 in the RPI, although CBSSports.com bracketologist Jerry Palm has them as an 11-seed in his most recent mockup. UNC is 1-4 against RPI Top-50 teams this season.
The prevalent thought is that North Carolina needed to finish with at least a 10-8 conference record to avoid being in serious danger of having its bubble burst on Selection Sunday.
UNC’s second-half slate includes three games against the top-two teams in the RPI – at Miami on Saturday, two vs. Duke – and three more against top-65 RPI teams in N.C. State (19), Florida State (52) and Maryland (62). That doesn’t include third-place Virginia (16-6, 6-3 ACC), which defeated UNC 61-52 on Jan. 6.
What makes the final nine ACC regular season games even more intriguing is the Tar Heels’ varying thoughts on how close their team is to reaching its potential.
“I couldn’t tell you,” James Michael McAdoo said following Tuesday’s win over Wake Forest. “I feel like it depends. When we show up ready to play, we’re a great team. We’ve had ups and downs. I feel like the highs are getting higher and our lows aren’t coming as often, which is good.”
Reggie Bullock focused on consistency when addressing the potential question.
“I think that we’re still right around the corner from it,” Bullock said. “Like in the game [against Wake Forest], there were some great stretches that we had, but there were still some stretches that we could have done a lot better. Once we just put a whole game together fully, I’ll feel like we’re definitely a top-25 team in the country.”
Dexter Strickland, as usual, maintained his optimistic view on his team’s progress.
“I don’t think we’re far at all,” Strickland said. “I think we’re doing a great job now. Everybody at this time knows their role and what we have to do to get a win. The freshmen have the experience and have the confidence and are not getting nervous before games now. They know the intensity of the game. I don’t think we’ve played to our potential yet, but I don’t think we’re far from it.”
Saturday in Coral Gables would be a good place to start. A victory over the ACC-leading Hurricanes on the road would qualify as a signature win and put UNC in solid position to return to the NCAA Tournament.