North Carolina Puts Together a Sneaky Challenging Schedule

Jim O'Connor-US PRESSWIRE

It's not chock full of the biggest names, but it's solid from front to back.

I'm putting a gun with a loaded chamber against your forehead: Do you believe that North Carolina is a legitimate national title contender in 2013? If I was in your situation, I have no idea how I'd answer that question; the last thing that would go through my head -- other than a bullet -- is likely hearing the 'click' of the hammer and wondering where everything went wrong.

Carolina, once again, has a lot of parts and talent, but the Heels are still a relative unknown in terms of whether they can -- finally! -- look and play like a national title contender from the start of the season to the end. The schedule that Carolina will play will provide some context to the preseason hype going on relative to Chapel Hill, but we won't get many answers about this team until, probably, mid-March.

Let's tear this to pieces.

Tier I Non-Conference Problems
March 2: @ Notre Dame; March 30: Johns Hopkins

These games are tell-your-kids-to-clean-the-garage-for-the-afternoon-so-that-you-can-watch-these-explosions-in-peace-and-quiet types of tilts. The 'Heels have had a weird relationship with their opponents in these mega games the last few years, either looking like they could be a national championship contender -- like last year at the Big City Classic when Carolina knocked off then-unbeaten Johns Hopkins at MetLife Stadium -- or outclassed when things mattered the most -- like when Duke put a late run on the 'Heels in the ACC Tournament final last April. The duplicity in how North Carolina often exhibits itself in games like this is the most maddening aspect of trying to figure out the Tar Heels' ceiling: It could be visibility unlimited or something much more definite.

The Blue Jays' defense will test what could be among the better offenses in the country; Notre Dame's defense, under the direction of Gerry Byrne, will also provide a unique test for Carolina, but it's the Irish's (potentially) improved offense that could expose a defense that was a total trash fire for Carolina in 2012. These games are big not just because they are against top five teams; they're big in how they'll test a Heels team that is full of talent but hasn't quite put it all together.

Tier II Non-Conference Problems
February 8: Air Force; February 16: v. Massachusetts; February 23: Fairfield; March 9: Princeton; March 27: Brown; April 13: @ Hofstra

Where North Carolina goes in 2013 is driven in large part in how the Tar Heels deal with these teams on their slate. All of the above are somewhere in the top half of the country in terms of ability, with Massachusetts and Princeton arguably sitting among the strongest in this cohort. There is a sliding scale here of difficulty and quality, but given some of North Carolina's losses over the last two seasons -- Ohio State (2011) and Pennsylvania (2012) -- an upset or two, given the Heels' history, is likely to come out of this grouping.

There are three games from the above that are especially interesting: Massachusetts (how will North Carolina's defense deal with Will Manny and Company?); Princeton (similar to the Massachusetts situation, how will the Heels approach and try to contain Tom Schreiber and all the destruction that he causes?); and Hofstra (the Pride are returning the bulk of their defense (save between the pipes) and have a Gatling gun in Adrian Sorichetti). In addition to Carolina's conference slate and its two mega games, these three contests will indicate whether it's safe to trust the Heels.

Plot Exposition
March 13: Duke; March 23: @ Maryland; April 5: @ Virginia

Here's Carolina's conference records under Joe Breschi:

  • 2012: 1-2
  • 2011: 1-2
  • 2010: 2-1
  • 2009: 0-3

That's pretty much a mess. Against their competitive peers, North Carolina has -- for the regular season (not counting the cockamamie ACC Tournament) -- fallen fairly flat. This is a program that hasn't beaten the Cavaliers in the regular season in four seasons and is a miserable 1-3 against rival Duke; oddly, though, the Heels are, somehow, 3-1 against the Terrapins in the same period. It's hard to understand exactly why the Tar Heels can't seem to put together a complete conference effort under Breschi on a consistent basis, and as the best indicator of what the NCAA Tournament will look like, Carolina's effort through this part of the schedule is paramount in understanding the narrative and plot of the Heels' season.

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