North Carolina's first game of the new year will have it facing off against the Wake Forest Demon Deacons. It will be UNC's first conference game of the season, the jump-off to what should be a stellar ACC year all around with incoming power teams joining already established juggernauts.
Ho-hum projections have Carolina finishing near the top of the conference, slated just behind the likes of Duke and Syracuse. Ho-hum is boring. Here are five bold predictions for the Tar Heels' ACC season.
North Carolina faces the following teams in the month of January:
The Tar Heels are ranked higher and are just plain better than all but one of those schools. However, fans are well aware of how shaky and wild Carolina's play can be. The Tar Heels will lose three of these conference games, putting their ACC record at a sour 4-3 entering February.
The three likely opponents to hit UNC with a loss are Syracuse, with its stiflingly long zone defense; Virginia, with its arduous tempo; and Boston College, which has two players who can match baskets with Marcus Paige and James Michael McAdoo.
February will see North Carolina sweep its three biggest conference rivals.
North Carolina State comes to town February 1. Maryland does the same a few days later. Then, on February 12, UNC hosts Duke.
Grabbing home-court advantage for all three of these contests is big. The Tar Heels will come out victorious all three days, with the Duke victory the cherry on top.
While February will be nothing but roses for Carolina when it comes to the Tar Heels' old rivals, the Heels will struggle mightily against the newcomers of the ACC.
UNC travels to Notre Dame February 8 and hosts Pittsburgh February 15. Both of these games should be wins for Carolina now that Leslie McDonald is back and Notre Dame has lost its best player.
Jerian Grant is no longer enrolled at the university after failing to meet academic standards to remain eligible to play basketball. He was the team's leading scorer. This should make the trip to South Bend a piece of cake for UNC. However, this is just the type of game this team fails to show up for.
And Pittsburgh is no slouch, either. The Panthers are off to a nearly flawless start to the season. They share the basketball, defend and do not rely on just one player to carry them. It is easy to take this team for granted.
Combined with the Syracuse game back in January, North Carolina will dearly regret its first showings against the conference's new squads, with a 1-2 record being the best it will salvage.
With the injury to Joel James and the up-and-down play of James Michael McAdoo, it seems like only a matter of time before Brice Johnson slinks his way into the Carolina starting lineup. This is a good thing because he is the team's best offensive weapon after Marcus Paige.
Johnson is a force on rebounds and putbacks. He finishes with authority and also showcases a number of solid post moves when matched up one-on-one against a defender. The topper is he can also hit that outside jumper from 15 to 18 feet away.
With the way teams will begin to defend Paige, doubling him or face-guarding him on the outside, someone else will need to score for North Carolina. That man will be Johnson. As his minutes tick up, he will lead the team in scoring during conference play.
After missing the first nine games of the season, Leslie McDonald sits 22 threes behind Marcus Paige for the team lead. There are a number of factors at play here, though, which will allow McDonald to be the team's No. 1 outside threat come season's end.
First, Paige is beginning to play differently. His outside shot is not falling as readily as it was early in the year. Defenses are also more focused on him. In the last six contests, Paige made more than two three-pointers in a game just once, in the loss to Texas.
He is driving more and getting to the foul line more often. These are easier and more efficient ways for him to score the basketball.
Meanwhile, McDonald's main offensive strength is his outside shooting. He is not a particularly good ball-handler or foul shooter. He doesn't pass exceptionally well or get to the basket at an elite level. Therefore, he should take a ton of threes this season. He attempted nine in his first game back from suspension.
By the end of the season, McDonald will have the most made threes on the club, eclipsing Paige in the process.