With the regular season having wrapped on Sunday, the 2014 ACC Tournament is set to tip off Wednesday, March 12 at 1:00 p.m. ET. The North Carolina Tar Heels enter the tournament as the fourth seed, which is quite an accomplishment after the rocky beginning to their conference season.
And yet, the Heels had the No. 2 seed within reach until a less-than-stellar showing at Cameron Indoor Stadium over the weekend against the Duke Blue Devils.
Nevertheless, a top-four seed was the goal for everyone entering this new, expanded Atlantic Coast Conference because only the top four seeds receive a double bye in the 15-team tournament. Here is the complete bracket courtesy of the ACC's website:
North Carolina will sit and wait for its quarterfinal game to come on Friday, March 14. As described in the bracket, it will face off against the winner of a second-round game between fifth-seeded Pittsburgh and a TBD opponent.
With so many games to come and so many matchups still undecided, it is worth following the trail through and finding UNC's ideal path to the 2014 ACC championship game.
The Heels' starting point of reference is the first game between the 12th-seeded Wake Forest Demon Deacons and the 13th-seeded Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
Both of these squads finished the season 6-12 in-conference. They are also both entering with their heads held (relatively) high.
After beating Georgia Tech, ND finished out the year with two very close losses in overtime to Pitt and on the road at Carolina. Even without pulling an upset win in either contest, Notre Dame seems to be the hotter team compared to Wake Forest.
The Deacons may have caught Duke looking ahead to its own UNC game that occurred three days later, or Duke may have caught Wake at home, where they aren't really such a terrible team after all.
Wake Forest at home is 14-4 this season, which includes a win over the Heels back in early January. On the road or at a neutral site, this team performs much worse. Wake has only won on the road one time this entire season against bottom-feeding Virginia Tech.
Meanwhile, Notre Dame, even without the departed Jerian Grant, has been a much tougher foe this season, matching records notwithstanding. Even though UNC is 2-0 against Notre Dame and just 1-1 against the Demon Deacons, Carolina should be rooting for Wake Forest to advance here.
Moving ahead to the second round, Pittsburgh will face Wake Forest (or Notre Dame) with the winner battling UNC for a trip to the semifinals.
Obviously, in an ideal scenario, UNC would be hoping for Wake to pull the upset. While Pittsburgh sputtered through much of February and March, the Panthers are the more talented team, especially with Lamar Patterson seemingly recovered from his thumb injury.
If Carolina advances through to the semifinals, it would face UVA, Maryland or Florida State.
In locating the easiest path for UNC to traverse, UVA doesn't seem like the optimal opponent. However, ideally, I think the Tar Heels want to exact some revenge on the regular-season champs.
Virginia somehow slipped under the radar all season on its way to the conference's best record. Through defensive grit, the Cavaliers finished 16-2 in-conference and grabbed the (non-existent) regular-season crown by defeating Syracuse on March 1.
They also played a game against North Carolina back in January. In that contest, UNC got handled pretty easily. It also marked the figurative turn in the Tar Heels' season, as they rattled off 12 consecutive wins afterwards.
Although there are easier opponents, North Carolina's ideal tourney scenario would see them facing the Virginia Cavaliers and taking down the unexpected conference leaders.
From there, the rest of the tale is simple. It doesn't even matter that Syracuse beat the Heels earlier in the year. That game feels so long ago based on how North Carolina flipped and how the Orange tumbled. Besides, in the championship match, what could be better than a rubber match of North Carolina vs. Duke?
UNC won the first time at home in the snow-postponed game. Duke took the second round in the regular-season finale, also at home. The third and deciding game game could be the ACC championship game on a neutral floor.
Could Carolina get back to dominating the boards and holding Duke's shooting down? Or would Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood appear invincible for a second time?
In this ideal ACC tournament scenario, I think we know what happens.