It has been a helter-skelter beginning to the Tar Heels' 2013-14 season. A shaky performance against Holy Cross was immediately followed by an upset loss to the Belmont Bruins. Then, just one week later, the undermanned Tar Heels took it to the defending national champion Louisville Cardinals to win the Hall of Fame Tip-off Tournament title.
Marcus Paige and Kennedy Meeks were both superb in the Heels' win over Louisville, and while James Michael McAdoo was a non-factor, he had been the team's best player in a number of their earlier contests.
Without P.J. Hairston and, to a lesser extent, Leslie McDonald for the foreseeable future, it will be up to Paige and McAdoo to dominate and score like the elite talents they are. Contributions from Meeks and the other young big men will also be a necessity when battling stronger foes, as Louisville was.
With Atlantic Coast Conference play starting up just after the holidays, how does UNC stack up against their ACC peers, both new and old, elite and weak?
Boston College gave No. 18 UConn everything they could handle last week in the 2K Sports Classic. Predicted to finish eighth in the preseason poll conducted by the ACC media, BC is led by sophomore guard Olivier Hanlan, last season's conference Rookie of the Year.
While Hanlan and forward Ryan Anderson can create their own shots and wreak havoc on the offensive end, the rest of the Eagles' roster leaves something to be desired. They have good size and depth up front but so does North Carolina.
North Carolina > Boston College
While the Tigers fell to UMass in their most recent contest, the Minutemen have been taking down every opponent thus far on their schedule. Nevertheless, Clemson this season is a regrouping team without any star power.
Leading scorer K.J. McDaniels still plays fewer than 30 minutes per game, as he did last year as the team's second banana. Clemson is in search of a lineup that can compete for entire ballgames. Predicted to finish 14th in the new ACC according to the conference media preseason poll, the Tigers will struggle this season to find the right mix and to close out tight games.
North Carolina > Clemson
North Carolina and Duke do not face each other until February 12. By that time, it seems likely that both P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald will be eligible to play. However, it is impossible to say just how good Jabari Parker will be by that time. He already looks like one of the three best players in college basketball, freshman or otherwise. Duke's shaky performance against Vermont had nothing to do with Parker, who finished with a team-high 26 points on 11-of-16 shooting.
While Duke is poor inside and can be exploited on the block, North Carolina does not have the players to exploit this. James Michael McAdoo has never been able to consistently back defenders down in the post. Although UNC has a number of talented big men who are constantly improving, none appear as though they will develop into someone who needs to be double-teamed, at least not this season.
And while the Heels will not be able to take advantage of Duke's defensive weakness, the Blue Devils' strength (their guard play and athleticism) will be problematic for UNC even at full strength.
Duke > North Carolina
The ACC preseason media polls had Florida State finishing ninth in the conference. That seems a bit low now. With a win over VCU and an overtime loss to Michigan in which the Seminoles held a considerable lead, FSU appears better than advertised.
Always a good defensive team under coach Leonard Hamilton (AKA Bunny Colvin), the team is off to a great start on the offensive end, shooting above 50 percent as a unit.
However, that is sure to tail off as the season progresses. Florida State simply does not have the reliable scorers they used to pepper their defensive juggernauts with.
North Carolina > Florida State
Georgia Tech hasn't been good for a while now. This season looks like it will be no different. Projected as one of the worst teams in the conference, GT was picked to finish 11th by the ACC media, which seems slightly generous.
There is very little in terms of backcourt talent on this roster. While UNC is light in the same department, at least the Tar Heels have Marcus Paige, one of the most improved players in the nation. Georgia Tech's outside shooting is nearly nonexistent. The Jackets' 19 made threes on the season are on par with the dreadful, Hairston-less total of the Tar Heels.
If a team cannot take advantage of the weak backcourt of UNC, they will not beat the Heels. These two teams play in late January. Even if P.J. Hairston is still out, it shouldn't matter.
North Carolina > Georgia Tech
Predicted to be the seventh-best team in the ACC by the media, Maryland is going to struggle this season. The Terrapins have good players but a poor fit. They are also off to a very sluggish start.
Dez Wells has been bouncing up and down between good and bad; Nick Faust has been doing the same. And although this team has a number of big bodies, they don't play very big. Maryland should not be 122nd in the nation in rebounding, as they currently are.
With that said, this team has talent, probably more talent than even finishing seventh would suggest. Freshman guard Roddy Peters still doesn't yet know what he's doing, but he will improve. Maryland seems like a team that could upset anyone on a given night but will have more losses at the end of the year than fans would assume.
Without Hairston playing, Maryland could very easily take down UNC; Carolina with him is another story.
North Carolina* > Maryland
*Needs Hairston to play
There are a lot of holes in this Miami team, the worst of which may be the Hurricanes' inability to score, even against "weak" competition. In the first game of the year, Miami was vanquished by St. Francis, managing only 62 points in a game that went to overtime. In the Canes' next contest, it took OT to beat Georgia Southern. After a loss at home to UCF, Miami is scoring barely 71 points per game and is shooting 42 percent from the field.
Of course there is time for Miami to turn things around and get this season back on track. However, UNC plays the Hurricanes as one of its first conference matches.
North Carolina > Miami
Another of the projected bottom-feeders in the preseason ACC poll, NC State at least has a star talent on its roster in sophomore forward T.J. Warren. Overshadowed last year by the likes of C.J. Leslie and Lorenzo Brown, Warren is now, without question, NC State's go-to player. He is off to a great start everywhere other than the free-throw line.
Unfortunately, the rest of the roster is a bit lacking. While Boston College's Olivier Hanlan may not be quite as good as Warren, his supporting cast is superior. NC State simply does not have the bodies this season to make its tilts against UNC anything approaching a rivalry.
North Carolina > North Carolina State
In its first season as a member of the ACC, Notre Dame is projected as the fifth-best team, according to the media preseason poll. This seems about right. The Irish are not quite on the level of fellow newcomer Syracuse but should be better than the majority of this conference.
Led by a number of upperclassmen, Notre Dame brings a ton of experience with it. This should help while the Irish traverse a new conference and play in unfamiliar arenas. Senior guards Jerian Grant and Eric Atkins lead the team in minutes and scoring. They also both possess very good passing skills and quick hands. If any team had a pair of guards to match Marcus Paige and make it awfully hard for UNC, it is Notre Dame.
This may be the matchup where having McDonald and Hairston is most crucial. Without them, ND is better. The Irish excel on the perimeter and will have more bodies than Paige can handle on his own. In fact, Grant probably cancels out Paige by himself.
North Carolina* = Notre Dame
*Needs Hairston to play
Pitt comes into the ACC without the talent of Syracuse and without the star power of Notre Dame. The Panthers rebound well, shoot well and go nine- or 10-men deep. This is a very young team, though. Nine of Pitt's 14 players are either freshmen or sophomores. The two seniors, Talib Zanna and Lamar Patterson, are the team's leaders, but neither one plays more than 26 minutes per game.
The ACC media slotted Pittsburgh sixth in the preseason poll; that seems just a tad high. With a lot of young players and a fluid roster, Pitt will probably struggle on the road in conference play. Coach Jamie Dixon is a successful head man, though, which should help to balance out that youth just a bit.
North Carolina > Pittsburgh
Hall of Fame head coach? Check.
A solid mix of youth and experience? Check.
The ACC preseason Player of the Year according to the conference media poll? Check.
Projected top-two finish in the same poll? Check.
Jim Boeheim, C.J. Fair, Jerami Grant and the Syracuse Orange are an excellent basketball team. They are not perfect, and a UNC team at full strength could give them everything they could handle. However, the 2-3 zone is a death sentence for the Tar Heels, who only have one player who can make a three-point shot. With Hairston, that number doubles but is still two players short of ideal.
Syracuse > North Carolina
The Virginia Cavaliers are a hard team to play against and to watch. They play at a very slow pace, grind out games and try to beat teams with offensive efficiency. Quality over quantity.
This works for the most part. UVA is often able to take down superior opponents. But the strategy will occasionally keep inferior foes in games with the Cavs as well.
The team's best player, senior guard Joe Harris, is off to a disappointing start. He was held to one point in Virginia's game against Davidson. This is a guy who averaged over 16 points per game last year. Playing for Virginia, that figure is all the more impressive.
Against North Carolina, two techniques will be opposing each other. The run, run offense of UNC will be facing the walk-slower offense of UVA. "Whichever team is able to force its pace on the other will come out victorious," is what analysts would say. However, the Cavaliers are still a step below the Tar Heels.
North Carolina > Virginia
Virginia Tech was picked to finish dead last in the preseason standings. This is understandable on the surface. The Hokies fired their coach two years ago. Since then, they have lost their three best players: Erick Green to graduation, Dorian Finney-Smith to transfer, and Montrezl Harrell backed out of his commitment to the school.
What's left is a roster of scraps. Jarell Eddie is a very good shooter and scorer but not enough to carry an entire team. Ben Emelogu is a promising freshman who still struggles with consistency. Devin Wilson is also a promising freshman, but playing point guard, he makes far too many mistakes.
Inside, the Hokies are also weak. Cadarian Raines and C.J. Barksdale have little to no upside.
It would have been fascinating to see the Hokies with their old coach and the prospects he recruited. Alas, that team does not exist.
North Carolina > Virginia Tech
The Demon Deacons will be North Carolina's first conference game of the year. It seems possible that neither P.J. Hairston nor Leslie McDonald will be available for this contest. It also appears as though that will not matter.
The days of Wake Forest being an ACC power are long since forgotten. They haven't finished in the top half of the conference since Al-Farouq Aminu and Ish Smith were in school.
The ACC media pegged Wake to finish 13th in their preseason poll. Early-season numbers are hard to judge considering the level of the opponents they have beaten, but that seems about right.
North Carolina > Wake Forest