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The Daily Tar Heel

How UNC men's basketball's tough non-conference slate will prepare the Tar Heels to face Duke

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Through its first 20 games, the No. 3North Carolina men’s basketball team faced six opponents ranked in the AP Top 25, clocking in at tenth in the NCAA's current strength of schedule rankings. 

The Tar Heels went 4-2 in those ranked matchups, besting then-No. 7 Oklahoma, No. 10 Tennessee, No. 20 Arkansas and No. 16 Clemson by an average of 11.2 points. Their two losses came to then-No. 5 UConn and No. 14 Kentucky by a combined 15 points. 

UConn is currently ranked No. 1 at 17-2, while the Wildcats come in at No. 10. 

Despite its lackluster performance last season, UNC scheduled contests against Duke, Kentucky and the reigning champion Huskies — no easy feat for any team. Even though they are 0-2 in those matchups thus far, the Tar Heels gained valuable experience in the nonconference slate that is now carrying over into ACC play. 

When asked about this season’s nonconference schedule, head coach Hubert Davis had nothing but positive things to say about its value to the squad.

“I really do think it’s helped us,” Davis said on Jan. 19. “For one, we had success. And two, in terms of style, there’s not really much out there we haven’t seen before in terms of individual players and styles and defenses.”

Senior Associate Athletic Director Clint Gwaltney, who is responsible for creating the men's basketball schedule, said the Tar Heels’ highly touted nonconference slate was not entirely planned that way. 

He said that much of UNC’s nonconference schedule this season was dictated by deals with specific invitationals. The Tar Heels participated in the CBS Sports Classic for the 10th consecutive season, where they faced Kentucky. Just 11 days prior, they matched up with now top-ranked UConn in the Jimmy V Classic. 

“With the ACC, there is an expectation to play in the Jimmy V on occasion,” Gwaltney said. “We had not played in a while, so it was kind of our turn."

Gwaltney also mentioned the opportunities the transfer portal and recruiting play in scheduling. When scheduling happens so far in advance, there is always a chance a team can retool its roster in the offseason and become an unexpectedly difficult matchup.

In 2019, the ACC instated new requirements, mandating teams to play 20 conference games per season as opposed to 18. This rule limited teams' ability to host home-and-home matchups with high-caliber opponents, as schools remain bound to contracts for invitationals and bye games.

But, at least for now, North Carolina can lean back on the experience it gained from the early part of the season and use it down the stretch and into March. 

And with two matchups against Tobacco Road rival No. 7 Duke on the horizon, UNC will look to draw on that base of knowledge to continue its perfect ACC record. 

“Going into conference season, it does give us confidence that we’ve gone against whatever we’re trying to face, whatever particular night,” Davis said. “I really believe our nonconference schedule has helped us move in trying to be successful in conference play.”

@j_kidd03

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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