The North Carolina women’s basketball team will not have an easy road to a winning season in 2018-2019.
UNC, which finished 15-16 and missed out on the postseason last year, will face 13 teams that made the 2018 NCAA Tournament, including NCAA champion Notre Dame and ACC Tournament champion Louisville.
UNC travels to Columbus, Ohio on Nov. 29 to take on Ohio State in the ACC Big Ten Challenge. Last season, the ACC Big Ten Challenge was important for North Carolina to establish early season momentum. A victory over Minnesota was the second of eight straight Tar Heel wins before conference play.
The matchup with the Buckeyes will be an early measure of UNC’s ability to compete in the ACC. A win against last season’s Big Ten regular season champion would signal that North Carolina is ready to compete with the top half of the conference. A blowout loss could foreshadow to another sub-.500 record.
Though North Carolina got off to a 3-2 conference start last season, it did so by beating up on the bottom of the ACC. UNC beat Pittsburgh, Clemson and Wake Forest, teams that finished in the bottom five of the conference standings.
This year, it will be much harder to get wins early in the conference schedule. UNC opens ACC play on Jan. 3 against Louisville, a team that made last year’s Final Four and won the ACC Tournament. The Tar Heels managed to give the Cardinals a contest last season, losing by only 10 in Carmichael Arena, but this year the team will not have that home court advantage.
North Carolina then hosts Florida State before traveling to Syracuse. Both teams made the NCAA Tournament last season. Likely the best chance UNC has for a win early on will come on Jan. 17, when Wake Forest comes to Chapel Hill.
Head coach Sylvia Hatchell could have Jan. 27 circled on her calendar. Defending national champion Notre Dame comes to Chapel Hill, led by last year’s hero Arike Ogunbowale. Ogunbowale hit not one, but two game-winning buzzer beaters in the Final Four. The first came in the national semifinal against Connecticut, and the second with 0.1 seconds left in the national championship game against Mississippi State.
After that, the big games continue. On Feb. 3, UNC travels to Raleigh for the first of two games against N.C. State and then plays Duke at home on Feb. 7. The Wolfpack and Blue Devils have both surpassed UNC in recent years, and the Tar Heels hope to buck that trend this season.
After Duke, North Carolina has a stretch of games against weaker opponents. The Tar Heels play Clemson, Pitt, Virginia and Boston College. Of the four, only the Cavaliers made the NCAA Tournament last year. On Feb. 24, Kea plays her last game in Carmichael Arena against N.C. State.
A handful of wins at the end of the season would help North Carolina build momentum heading into the ACC Tournament, which begins March 6 at the Greensboro Coliseum. Last year, UNC flamed out on the second day, falling to N.C. State.
The Tar Heels will need to fare better in Greensboro this season if they hope to qualify for the NCAA Tournament — it could be their best chance to make a statement.