It goes without saying the games against Duke won’t take a backseat to any opponent this season. Here are five games that could gauge how good, or average, this season will be for the Tar Heels:
5. at Virginia, Jan. 20
The Heels lost for the first time in five trips to John Paul Jones Arena last season. This game could be determined by style points. The Cavs want to use their slow, methodical pace while Carolina wants to run. The difference with this Virginia team is it doesn’t have to play slow to be successful. UVa has the talent to make a move into the upper echelon of the ACC. And with the only regular-season meeting between these two, the outcome could end up serving as a tiebreaker.
4. vs. Louisville, Nov. 24
Both teams have to win in order to face each other (the Cards against Fairfield, UNC against Richmond). But if this game comes to fruition as it should, it could be like an NCAA Tournament game in November. Even without Chane Behanan, Louisville will have a formidable frontcourt led by Tarboro, N.C., native Montrezl Harrell. Surprisingly, the biggest test for Carolina won’t be seeing how Marcus Paige and Nate Britt will handle the Cards’ formidable pressure. It will be seeing if the defense has improved on stopping dribble penetration. If they can’t Louisville’s Russ Smith is going to give them fits.
3. at Syracuse, Jan. 11
Carolina and Syracuse have faced off seven times (the Heels hold a 4-3 edge), but ironically six of those meetings have come on neutral courts. Only once have they played a true road game and that came the final season Michael Jordan donned Carolina blue in December 1983. This will be the only regular-season meeting with the Orange in their inaugural season in the ACC. In anticipation, Orange fans have already purchased more than 30,000 tickets for the game that’s quickly headed towards a sellout. It’s one signal that the ACC will no longer just be measured by the Carolina-Duke rivalry.
2. Kentucky, Dec. 14
After a one-year hiatus, it will be great to see two of college basketball’s marquee programs back at it. The Wildcats, who are No. 1 in the USA Today/Coaches preseason poll, have a tough non-conference schedule, too. I don’t expect them to waltz into the Dean E. Smith Center with an undefeated record, despite coach John Calipari openly discussing the possibility for an undefeated season as a goal. But it will be UK’s first true road test and Carolina’s first home game against a ranked opponent. The last three regular-season games in the series have been determined by a basket.
1. at Michigan State, Dec. 4
This game, more than any other non-conference matchup, will be an early season barometer for North Carolina. Remember last year’s disaster on the road at Indiana? Well, the Breslin Center can be as loud and intimidating for opponents as Assembly Hall (or Cameron Indoor Stadium for that matter); if the Heels aren’t ready it could produce similar results. Carolina will see exactly how far their stable of big men have matured going against State’s Adreian Payne. The Heels can use a lineup that matches up with the Spartans, so the bigger question will be how they will handle a top five team on the road.