What a strange season it has been for the North Carolina men's basketball team.
After a stunning loss to a sub-.500 Marquette team last Wednesday, UNC turned around three days later to defeat No. 11 Florida State, the leaders of the ACC. But as soon as the tide shifted, UNC fittingly fell to Syracuse two days after that.
Throughout its up-and-down season, UNC has oscillated between falling out of NCAA Tournament contention for the second year in a row and looking like a decent contender for a lower seed placing. The win over the Seminoles gave the Tar Heels some breathing room on the tournament bubble, but the team just as quickly threw it away in an embarrassing loss to the Orange on Monday.
In the loss, the Tar Heels once again struggled with the most basic aspects of the game — hitting shots and holding onto the ball. They committed 20 turnovers, which resulted in a staggering 28 points for Syracuse. Add in UNC's poor 4-20 mark from 3-point range, and the team has put itself in the most do-or-die situation possible.
With one game left in the season, there's only one thing the Tar Heels need to do to hold onto their spot in the tournament — don't lose. Plain and simple.
The final test of the regular season will come against Duke on Saturday, a team that North Carolina defeated in early February. In a narrow 91-87 victory, first-year point guard Caleb Love turned in his best performance of the season, scoring a career-high 25 points, tied for the most points a UNC player has scored in a game this season. The Tar Heels controlled much of the game, and whenever the Blue Devils would make a run to cut the lead, they had an answer at every turn.
Duke is currently projected to miss the NCAA Tournament with an 11-9 record, but after winning four out of the last five games, the Blue Devils are trending upward. With both UNC and Duke hoping to solidify tournament resumes, Saturday's matchup could be one of the most important games in the rivalry's recent history.
In the past — when both teams were almost guaranteed locks for the NCAA Tournament — those games came down to a matter of pride and an opportunity to test themselves against a top team in the country. Now? It's win or go home.
There is of course the possibility that UNC could buy itself an automatic bid by winning the upcoming ACC Tournament. Aside from poor outings against Virginia and Clemson, the Tar Heels have looked capable of putting up somewhat of a fight against every team in the conference. Given the relative parity in the ACC this year, and the high variability due to COVID-19, it's not impossible.
But, given that the only consistency of this young North Carolina squad is its maddening inconsistency, it's hard to say for sure. So the Duke game it is.
It is genuinely impossible to say which team will show up on Saturday. It might be the team that looks bigger and stronger than everyone else in the conference, who can swallow up every rebound and score right in your face with its onslaught of big men.
Or it could be the team that can't stop giving the ball away and seems unable to hit a shot beyond five feet, or run any real coherent offense.
At this point, if you're a Tar Heel fan, you almost have as much luck using a coin flip to guess whether or not the season ends in the ACC Tournament.