North Carolina Tar Heels: Kentucky

CHAPEL HILL -- When North Carolina coach Roy Williams told Charleston’s Bobby Cremins that the Tar Heels would be playing at UNC Asheville on Nov. 13 -- two days and roughly 2,300 miles after playing Michigan State in the Carrier Classic -- Cremins was shocked.

“He said '... They’re opening a new gym, they’ll be fired up, they’re really good. You did that for us a few years ago and we beat you,’” Williams recalled. "I said, ‘Yeah, Bobby, I remember.’

“… It’ll be a big-time challenge for our team, but we’re supposed to be pretty good so we’ll see how we handle it.”

The top-ranked Tar Heels’ schedule is fraught with challenges -- which is exactly what Williams wanted.

[+] EnlargeWilliams
AP Photo/Gerry BroomeRoy Williams is excited about his team's challenging schedule.
UNC opens with Michigan State on an aircraft carrier in San Diego. Then there’s the Asheville game at Kimmel Arena, which Williams donated funds to help build (he grew up there).

The Tar Heels play at home against Wisconsin on Nov. 30 in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, then at No. 2 Kentucky at Rupp Arena on Dec. 3.

And the schedule would have been even tougher had Williams had his way.

“One of our home games, I tried to get it on the road this year -- Texas. But, they already had 19 home games,’’ Williams said. “ … Rick [Barnes] lost some guys so it might be better for him, and next year we might lose some games, so it might be better for us. I do think you want to really challenge your really good teams [with your schedule] and then hope you don’t kill those teams that come afterwards if you slide off a little bit.”

The good news for UNC: at least it doesn’t play at Georgia Tech, where it lost by an average of 18.5 points the past two seasons.

Five challenges to watch:

1. Vs. Michigan State in San Diego/ at UNC Asheville, Nov. 11 and 13

I combine the two because they’re so close together … yet so far apart. UNC will face the Spartans on the outdoor deck of the USS Carl Vinson at 7 p.m. ET (in front of thousands of service members and President Barack Obama), leave after a postgame concert, arrive in Asheville on Saturday and play again at 4 p.m. Sunday.

Jet lag, anyone?

Plus, the opponents are pretty good. The Spartans are young, but were still picked to finish third in the Big Ten -- and like to overachieve. Asheville returns most of its starting lineup, and was picked to finish first in the Big South.

2. At Kentucky, Dec. 3

I listed this game as one of the five things I can’t wait to see from UNC this season because of all of the drama: preseason No. 1 versus preseason No.2, historically storied programs, the Tar Heels’ sense of unfinished business after losing to the Wildcats last March in the Elite Eight.

Enough said (for now).

3. At Florida State, Jan. 14

The Seminoles, perennial third wheels in the ACC of late, desperately want to push into the top two. With ESPN's "GameDay" in town, this is their chance.

Yet again, the Seminoles boast a frustrating defense. Plus, the Tar Heels tend to play close games in Tallahassee. In 2004, they blew a 24-point lead and lost in overtime. Two years later, they survived 81-80 thanks to six 3-pointers from Wes Miller. They needed overtime to survive in 2008, a buzzer-beater by Ty Lawson to escape in 2009 and a 3-pointer from Harrison Barnes with 3.1 seconds left last season to win there, 72-70.

Expect another close one.

4. Vs. Clemson, Feb. 18

If the Tigers couldn’t break their 0-for-forever streak in Chapel Hill during the 8-20 debacle in 2001-02, they’re probably not going to do it this year, either.

But I like to keep them on the list, just in case.

5. At Duke, March 3

The best part of having UNC-Duke as the regular-season finale is that they’re playing at their best. Add in the sticky, rambunctious craziness of Cameron Indoor Stadium, and it’s the perfect tune up -- for both players and fans -- for the Madness that’s about to begin.

The Tar Heels haven’t beaten Duke at Duke since 2008-09, when they won the national championship. Plus, that 32-point embarrassment in 2010 still sticks sharply in Williams’ craw. Expect a showdown.

Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.

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