UNC basketball is hoping its 4-game, 9-day stretch can change course of season

Robert Willett/rwillett@newsobserver.com
·4 min read

North Carolina begins an unprecedented stretch of its men’s basketball schedule with four games in nine days starting with Virginia Tech at home on Monday. That, alone, is daunting enough without the Tar Heels carrying an albatross of back-to-back blowout losses by more than 20 points.

It helps, that the first three games — against the Hokies, Boston College and N.C. State — are all at the Dean E. Smith Center, where Carolina maintains a 9-0 record. And that three of the four opponents (the Eagles, Wolfpack and Hokies) have losing records in the ACC.

But Carolina’s confidence is shaken, to say the least. A week ago in Miami, a victory would have put the Heels in first place in the ACC. But their 85-57 loss, followed by Saturday’s 98-76 beat down at Wake Forest, gave the Heels a full-fledged case of imposter syndrome.

“This past week wasn’t a good week for us,” UNC coach Hubert Davis said. “And so we can sit here and whine and complain and point fingers and make excuses or you can get back up and you can keep fighting, or start fighting, and get ready for this upcoming week.”

The Virginia Tech game was originally supposed to be played on Dec. 29. The game was postponed after the Hokies program went into a COVID-19 induced pause. By squeezing this game into the schedule on Monday, it forced the Louisville game originally scheduled for Jan. 31 to be moved to Feb. 1.

Davis showed a glimpse of how the schedule will impact the rotation during their 98-76 loss to Wake Forest. He hadn’t shown a tendency to go too deep into the bench, but Davis used 10 players in the first half.

Sophomore forward Puff Johnson had been injured and did not play in UNC’s first 15 games. But he was the first substitute off the bench against Wake and played a career-high 14 minutes. In two seasons, Johnson had never played double-digit minutes.

Davis may continue to keep an expanded rotation with redshirt sophomore Anthony Harris out for the rest of the season. Playing time for Virginia transfer and Panther Creek High School alum Justin McKoy has increased too over the past three games. McKoy averaged 6.3 minutes a game through the first 12 he appeared. The past three he’s averaged 16.6 minutes.

“With us having to play four games in a week, and then really five games in 11 days (including Wake), playing guys 35 minutes a game just doesn’t benefit us,” Davis said. “And so I was really looking for guys that came off the bench that could give us a spark not necessarily scoring, but just come in there and change the game by their effort by their energy.”

Carolina’s current stretch won’t do much to secure an NCAA Tournament spot even by sweeping all four games. But a couple of losses sure could put the Heels in a precarious position. It’s beginning to take on all of the characteristics of a bubble team.

The Heels’ marquee non-conference win came against then-No. 24 Michigan. The Wolverines are struggling to stay above .500, but currently sit at No. 38 in the NCAA’s NET rankings. UNC should root for them to get to No. 30 in order to qualify for a Quad I win, which is one of the metrics the tournament selection committee will use when determining bids and seeding.

Bracketmatrix.com samples 93 different NCAA tournament projections and currently shows UNC with an average seed of No. 10. The Heels were listed on 75 of the brackets — which also means 18 brackets didn’t have them making the tournament.

Frankly, Carolina has more pressing needs right now than wondering about the tournament. Defensively, the Heels still have had problems containing dribble penetration. Offensively, they have to find a counter to how opponents have adapted to defending Armando Bacot in the post.

Reaching the tournament is an obvious goal, but UNC sophomore guard Caleb Love said they have bigger concerns.

“I mean, to be honest, I’m not really worried about that right now,” Love said. “Because we got to figure out what we’re going through right now and we’ll worry about that later. As long as we figure this thing out, stop the bleeding and focus on this next game right now. Once we get these wins, I’ll worry about that.”

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