After beating Duke for the first time since March 9, 2019 on Saturday, the North Carolina men’s basketball team (12-6, 7-4 ACC) sits at fifth in the conference and firmly within the NCAA Tournament bubble.
Four of the Tar Heels’ eight remaining regular season games are against the top four teams in the ACC, presenting UNC with the opportunity to earn its first signature win. With just a month left in the regular season, here’s a look ahead at where North Carolina goes from here.
Major tests lie ahead
Aside from a bout with now-No. 20 Florida State on Jan. 16, UNC hasn’t had the opportunity to gain a true signature win in ACC play. Beating Duke will always stand as something of a signature win on Tobacco Road, but this year’s Blue Devils sit at just 7-7, and barring a late-season surge, they are likely out of the NCAA Tournament conversation.
On Feb. 13, UNC will travel to Charlottesville, Virginia, to face a Cavaliers squad that not only leads the ACC regular season race, but has earned a No. 14 national ranking.
The Tar Heels have often struggled against the Cavaliers in recent years, but this matchup will present North Carolina with its best opportunity for a true signature win for the remainder of the campaign, as Virginia is slotted at No. 9 in the KenPom rankings.
UNC’s three remaining major ACC tests — No. 16 Virginia Tech, Louisville and Florida State, in that order — will all take place in the Dean Smith Center, where the Tar Heels are undefeated this year. Picking up a statement win or two will be critical if North Carolina hopes to climb the ladder in the NCAA Tournament discussion and avoid a double-digit seeding in the Big Dance.
Consistent guard play
As UNC has won seven of its last nine games, a growing trend is improved guard play for the Tar Heels.
Those improvements were never as clear as they were against the Blue Devils, as oft-struggling first-year guard Caleb Love finished with a career-high 25 points, and the Tar Heels put together a 10-15 shooting performance from beyond the arch.
North Carolina is built from the inside out with its big man triumvirate of Garrison Brooks, Armando Bacot and Day’Ron Sharpe — which sits near the top of the NCAA leaderboards in every major rebounding category — but UNC functions at its best when the guard play can complement its paint dominance.
If the Tar Heels young backcourt can continue to improve, UNC will be a threat come March.
Winning the games the Tar Heels are supposed to
UNC’s season so far has been defined by inconsistency. Back-to-back losses to start ACC play? Well, the Tar Heels have won seven of nine since then. Three straight dominant performances against Wake Forest, N.C. State and Pittsburgh? The very next game, UNC looked rusty and overmatched in a season-low scoring performance against Clemson.
If North Carolina hopes to further itself as a contender and earn an all important double bye in the ACC Tournament, it cannot follow up a season-high scoring output in Cameron Indoor Stadium with a loss to ACC bottom-feeder Miami.
Inconsistent teams don’t often garner much postseason success, and if the Tar Heels struggle to win games against the teams they should beat with a murderers' row of ACC foes coming up, they could easily find themselves out of the NCAA Tournament conversation.
Saturday’s win over Duke was key, and a complete offensive performance against a team that certainly has talent, despite its subpar record, is nothing to scoff at. But with the win, expectations will continue to build, and every game will be important for the Tar Heels moving forward as they look to write their postseason destiny.