When asked recently what opponent he had circled on his proverbial calendar, North Carolina junior Reggie Bullock wouldn’t bite. “They’re all important … beginning with Gardner-Webb,” the junior replied.
True, the Nov. 9 season opener against the Runnin’ Bulldogs should be interesting, what with the regular-season debut of the Tar Heels’ freshman quartet; the return of guards Leslie McDonald and Dexter Strickland from ACL injuries; and the first real competition for the team after losing four starters to the NBA draft.
But after briefly previewing each of UNC’s upcoming opponents in the 2012-13 season, there are five matchups that top my “must watch” list:
1. UNC at Florida State, Jan. 12
I know, I know: A lot of folks probably have NC State or Duke or Indiana as their No. 1 game. But intriguing things tend to happen when the Tar Heels travel to Tallahassee -- remember when they blew a 24-point lead and lost in overtime in 2004? Or when they needed six 3-pointers from Wes Miller to win 81-80 two years later? Or the game-winners by Ty Lawson and Harrison Barnes in 2009 and 2011? And there’s no reason to think something noteworthy won’t happen this season.
Last January, the Tar Heels posted the most lopsided loss of the Roy Williams era (90-57). Then they made further headlines when Williams led most of the team off the court early, leaving a group of walk-ons and reserves to play the final 14 seconds before Seminoles fans stormed the court. Even with six players from last year’s rotation gone, FSU is still pretty darn good. Will the Tar Heels ponder leaving the court early again? And will they need to?
2. UNC at NC State, Jan. 26
Three months before their first matchup, Tar Heels senior Dexter Strickland has already added bulletin board fodder to this game, telling CBSSports.com that the Wolfpack shouldn’t talk any smack -- or be a favorite to win the ACC -- until they finally beat the Tar Heels. Expect the buildup to only heat up as this matchup grows closer.
Although UNC has a 13-game winning streak against their in-state rival, NC State has four returning starters, a top-10 preseason ranking and quite a few grudges -- including the no-call during last year’s ACC tournament when point guard Kendall Marshall collided with State’s Alex Johnson as Marshall drove toward the basket for his game-winning shot.
3. UNC at Duke, Feb. 13
And Duke at UNC, March 9. It’s still the rivalry.
4. UNLV at UNC, Dec. 29
The Rebels handed then-top ranked UNC its first loss of last season, in the Las Vegas Invitational, and they should be even better this year. Fast, deep, and talented, UNLV returns junior forward Mike Moser (who pondered an early entry into the NBA draft) and senior guard Anthony Marshall; plus it adds ESPN.com’s seventh-ranked recruiting class and some touted transfers in former USC guard Bryce Jones and former Pitt forward Khem Birch (who will be available to play after the fall semester).
Also, the Rebels could very well be undefeated when they come to the Smith Center, making it a December nonconference game to remember.
5. UNC at Indiana, Nov. 27
The last time these two teams met in Bloomington, the Raymond Felton-Sean May-Rashad McCants-led team not only won there, but went on to win coach Roy Williams’ first national title. This time, however, it’s the Hoosiers who are expected to contend for an NCAA championship.
Led by 7-footer Cody Zeller -- Tyler’s younger brother, and a National Player of the Year candidate -- the Hoosiers return four starters from a squad that won 27 games (including two in the NCAA tournament). This will be a toughie for UNC in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.