Sitting at 1-4 through the first five games, the path through the ACC won't be getting any easier for the North Carolina Tar Heels. In fact, it only appears to be getting tougher.
Just about every game left on UNC's schedule could be considered a "big" one, as it sits on the outside of the NCAA tournament bubble. The Tar Heels are currently unranked in the AP poll and are uncomfortably perched at No. 58 in the RPI rankings.
Unless it wins the ACC tournament, the selection committee probably won't give this team a second look if it's ranked any lower than No. 40 in the RPI at the end of the season.
That makes the following games crucial for Carolina's tournament bid.
When: Feb. 1 at 1 p.m. EST; Feb. 26 at 8 p.m. EST
Where: (Feb. 1) Chapel Hill, N.C.; (Feb. 26) Raleigh, N.C.
Broadcast: (Feb. 1) ESPN2/ESPN3; (Feb. 26) ESPN3
Opponent AP Rank: Unranked
Opponent RPI Rank: 64
OK. I'll admit this year's matchup between the North Carolina Tar Heels and the NC State Wolfpack isn't nearly as sexy as it was last season when the Pack was predicted to win the ACC. But this is a rivalry game nonetheless, and both are on the verge of popping their respective NCAA tournament bubbles.
A split series may not make a difference in March, but a sweep could force the losing team to miss the Big Dance. If that isn't motivation to stomp out a rival, I don't know what is.
The fans may be disappointed in what they have seen from these two programs thus far, but we should be in for a couple of exciting, evenly matched games. Both teams rely heavily on their leading scorers, Marcus Paige (16.8 PPG) and T.J. Warren (22.2 PPG), and are extremely limited on the outside.
NC State shoots 28.8 percent from beyond the arc, while UNC is just a hair better at 30.4 percent.
Perhaps "ugly" should replace "exciting." But going down to the wire in a physical rivalry game is usually pretty fun to watch, no matter how awful the teams look.
When: Feb. 17 at 7 p.m. EST
Where: Tallahassee, Fla.
Opponent AP Rank: Unranked
Opponent RPI Rank: 20
Entering the season, most pundits expected the Florida State Seminoles to be sitting near the bottom of the ACC, where the North Carolina Tar Heels currently reside. But strong guard play and another solid season from Okaro White has the 'Noles sitting at 4-2 in the ACC—both losses coming at the hands of the Virginia Cavaliers.
The Tar Heels and the Seminoles both sport great size all around, but FSU has a clear advantage from the outside. The 'Noles rank third in the conference in three-point percentage (37 percent). In fact, every starter except center Boris Bojanovsky is capable of knocking down the trifecta.
That doesn't bode well for a Carolina squad that is allowing its opponents to get off 20.8 shots a game from that range. They're usually pretty open looks, too.
Somehow, the Tar Heels need to dig deep and find that defensive intensity that propelled them to victories over Louisville, Michigan State and Kentucky early in the season. With FSU sitting at No. 20 in the RPI, a win could really give the Heels a much-needed boost in the rankings.
When: Feb. 15 at 1 p.m. EST
Where: Chapel Hill, N.C.
Opponent AP Rank: 20
Opponent RPI Rank: 12
Speaking of tough matchups, this may be as hard as it gets the rest of the way for a North Carolina squad that struggles mightily in the half court. The Pittsburgh Panthers have one of the premier defenses in the country, ranking 10th nationally at 59.2 points allowed per game.
They also have Lamar Patterson, who is posting career numbers at 17.4 points and 4.6 assists per game. And though his numbers serve as nice eye candy, what really makes this group thrive is its team play. The Panthers rank seventh in the nation, averaging 17.2 assists per game on 27.6 made field goals.
At 5-1, Pitt's currently sitting pretty in its inaugural ACC campaign.
Picking up a win against this team would certainly help Carolina's argument for a tournament bid come March. The Tar Heels will have to play as one cohesive unit to have any shot at taking down one of the ACC's best.
When: Feb. 12 at 9 p.m. EST; Mar. 8 at 9 p.m. EST
Where: (Feb. 12) Chapel Hill, N.C.; (Mar. 8) Durham, N.C.
Broadcast: (Feb. 12) ESPN /ESPN3; (Mar. 8) ESPN/ESPN3
Opponent AP Rank: 18
Opponent RPI Rank: 16
What can you say about Duke vs. North Carolina? There is a reason it always seems to be played at 9 p.m. ET. It's the premier matchup everyone wants to see, whether they reside within these two passionate fanbases or not.
Even though both teams have had down seasons over the many years of the rivalry, the thrill of a national title game always seems to be present. These players may not actually hate each other, but it certainly seems like it on the hardwood.
That makes it a big game, no matter the implications.
It's even bigger for North Carolina, as it desperately needs a win over Duke on its resume, and it will be playing in Cameron Indoor for the final game of the regular season. Depending on how the rest of the ACC slate goes for the Tar Heels, that game could be the deciding factor in their bid for the tourney.
Picking up a victory won't be easy against this crew, though.
The Blue Devils tout one of the premier inside duos in freshman sensation Jabari Parker and transfer Rodney Hood, who currently combine for 36.5 points per game in their first season under Coach K. As usual, the Devils are shooting lights-out from the perimeter, too, burying 40.8 percent of their three-point attempts.
The Tar Heels will have to take advantage of a porous interior defense that has allowed opponents to shoot 49.4 percent inside the arc. That's easier said than done. But one thing we know about the Heels is that they are much better at shooting the two than the three-ball.
The question is: Who will step up to counter the scoring production of Parker and Hood? Scoring leaders James Michael McAdoo, Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson better bring their A-games for these matchups.