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Friday April 23rd

Analysis: Previewing the most compelling possible first ACC Tournament opponents for UNC

UNC first year guard RJ Davis (4) prepares to take a shot in the Smith Center during a game against NC State on Saturday, Jan. 23, 2021. UNC beat NC State 86-76.
Buy Photos UNC first year guard RJ Davis (4) prepares to take a shot in the Smith Center during a game against NC State on Saturday, Jan. 23, 2021. UNC beat NC State 86-76.

Monday’s loss to Syracuse did more than pull North Carolina closer to the wrong side of the NCAA Tournament bubble. It increased the likelihood UNC would play on the second day of the ACC Tournament, giving it one extra game compared to higher-seeded teams. 

With only a few days left in the regular season, the ACC standings remain tight. Any result can significantly alter a team's position. At the time of publication before Duke and Georgia Tech face each other on Tuesday night, the Tar Heels are sitting in sixth, but could easily be passed. With a few games remaining on the ACC schedule in the coming days, UNC could move around some but will almost certainly end up with just a single-bye. 

Although there’s still much to be resolved and UNC could end up facing a wide variety of opponents, here are North Carolina’s most intriguing possible opponents in the opening round:

Duke

The second installment of this year's edition of the UNC-Duke rivalry coming up on Saturday is even more meaningful. The Tar Heels are no longer playing to potentially push the Blue Devils out of the postseason — they’re now also competing for seeding. The two rivals would meet for their third matchup much earlier than usual.

Despite their talent, the Blue Devils would be one of the ideal matchups for the Tar Heels. While they’ve played much better lately, their lack of experience is one of Duke's biggest disadvantages going into the tournament. They also have a lack of size and their best player, Matthew Hurt, has struggled to find any production in his three career games against North Carolina.

Syracuse

The Orange exposed UNC’s inability to cover the 3-point line and could very well hurt them from the arc again.

But they have limited size, which kept the Tar Heels in the game despite horrendous shooting and guard play. If first-years Caleb Love and RJ Davis can limit the turnovers and feed the frontcourt, North Carolina should have a good chance of getting revenge. 

N.C. State  

The Wolfpack have reinvigorated their season with four consecutive victories and are currently slotted in as the No. 10 seed. The in-state rivals split the season series, but both games involved N.C. State senior Devon Daniels, who’s out for the season with a torn ACL now. 

N.C. State still has two consistent shot-blocking bigs. Senior DJ Funderburk and first-year Manny Bates are a great starting duo that could neutralize the Tar Heels’ post quartet. Sophomore Armando Bacot has found success in both outings, but UNC will need first-years Day’Ron Sharpe and Walker Kessler to play big roles off the bench. 

Georgia Tech

The Yellow Jackets may be the least desirable opponent out of the four. They present a veteran core that has its eyes set on the NCAA Tournament. Still firmly on the bubble, they will give it everything they have in the ACC Tournament for a chance to play in Indianapolis. 

Georgia Tech is led by senior Jose Alvarado, who has given North Carolina fits in the past. The senior is capable of exposing UNC's perimeter defense and providing his team energy for the full 40 minutes. If the Tar Heels come out slow, he and the Yellow Jackets could make them pay. 

North Carolina no longer controls its own destiny. While a win against Duke would certainly improve its standing, UNC will likely rely on the field to determine its position. They could hold on to a sixth or fifth seed and take on the upper echelon of ACC teams – Florida State, Virginia, Virginia Tech and Louisville.

If anything can be learned from their last few games, it's that the Tar Heels can beat anyone in the conference, but could also be bounced in their first game just as easily. 

Uncertainty is a common theme this season. And there will be plenty of it until Saturday when the final ACC regular season matchups are played. 

@ryanheller23 

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com



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