In any potential dream season, there is the inevitable threat of an occasional nightmare. UNC's schedule presents a little bit of everything including a few games that, win or lose, should provide a treat to any college basketball fan.
The story lines in a possible storybook season have yet to unfold, but already the injury status of UNC's (and possibly, the NCAA's) best player (Tyler Hansbrough), the Tar Heels' best defender (Marcus Ginyard) and backup point guard (Bobby Frasor) have provided a more dramatic backdrop for the early games.
Nothing but a repeat of 2005's National Championship will be considered a successful season in Chapel Hill—and the pressure won't really begin in earnest until March.
So to keep you busy until March Madness rolls around, here are North Carolina's 10 most intriguing matchups in the regular season:
[note: late entry Penn replaces Kentucky at #10 after the Wildcats' embarrassing 111-103 defeat vs. VMI on Friday night]
10. Pennsylvania at UNC, November 15th
No, I don't expect Penn to really challenge UNC—at least not for more than 10 minutes. This is not just simply the excitement of the Prologue, it is a chance to get a glimpse of UNC's depth and an early test for a highly touted recruiting class. With Hansbrough, Ginyard, and most likely Frasor sitting the game out, fans will get a lengthy look at the players who will be providing crucial minutes in February and March.
Of note, the Quakers have won the Ivy League in seven of the last nine seasons and considered last year's 8-6 record and third-place finish a colossal disappointment. They are very young and return talented players sidelined last year by injuries, such as G Darren Smith and G/F Tyler Bernardini.
9. Boston College at UNC, January 4th
It's the ACC opener for the Tar Heels and probably the first reasonable competition they will see since the December 3rd game at Michigan State. How healthy will they be in six weeks? What rust will they show after a rather light non-conference slate? By this point in the season, they will have likely faced only two ranked teams: whoever they play for the Maui Invitational Title and the aforementioned Spartans.
8. UNC at N.C. State, January 31st
The Wolfpack have no trouble getting up for this rivalry game, but their team has been a virtual Jekyll and Hyde for the last two seasons. If N.C. State is talking about coach Sidney Lowe's red jacket and whether Javier Gonzalez or Farnold Degand should be playing point guard, they are probably in for a long night. If, on the other hand, N.C. State discovers the ever-elusive "team chemistry", and Brandon Costner returns to his freshman form, UNC better bring their "A" game or they could be leaving Raleigh with a "L".
7. Maryland at UNC, February 3rd
After the emotional visit to Raleigh, UNC returns home for a rematch of one of their two conference losses from last year. UNC was outplayed in the Dean Dome last year, although Ty Lawson wasn't present to contend with the Terrapins. That's taking nothing away from what Maryland pulled off; UNC was outplayed on that night and many of their weaknesses were exposed. Gary Williams is always a tenacious (if sweaty) foe, and I guarantee UNC coach Roy Williams has this game circled on his desktop Coca-Cola calendar.
6. Clemson at UNC, January 21st
The UNC-Clemson rivalry is unique for a couple of reasons. Clemson has not beaten UNC in the state of North Carolina in...ever, and this game last year went to double overtime before UNC could dispatch of an unusually feisty Tigers squad. Clemson is expected to be improved over last year and are certainly a potential Sweet Sixteen team, as they have consistently improved under coach Oliver Purnell.
K.C. Rivers is a potential superstar; he can score, rebound, and shoot the three and has matured into an impressive floor leader. Dean Smith never cared much for Rick Barnes in the 1990s and the rivalry hasn't cooled down much since. This is one of the best teams Clemson has brought to Chapel Hill in a long time, and they want to end The Streak as intensely as UNC wants to preserve their home-state dominance.
5. UNC at Wake Forest, January 11th
This is UNC's second ACC game, and the Tar Heels will likely be facing their best competition in over a month when it heads to Winston-Salem to face a Wake Forest team returning all five starters from last year. The Demon Deacons handed Duke their worst loss of the 2007-08 campaign, and UNC could be in for a significant battle.
Wake coach Dino Gaudio enters his second season replacing legendary class-act Skip Prosser and has to figure out the right combination of players by the time he faces the Heels in this early ACC matchup. Where and how do giants Ty Walker, Tony Woods, and Al-Farouq Aminu squeeze into this talented lineup?
4. UNC at Miami (FL), February 15th
It's not a rivalry game. But it's late in the regular season, it's against what is likely to be a ranked team, and it's sandwiched squarely between two games with Duke. Miami tends to play to the level of their competition, but the 'Canes are likely to enjoy their second straight trip to the NCAA tournament after missing it for five consecutive years. They are the most talented ACC team outside the state of North Carolina, and all but one starter returns to a team that lost to Texas by three points to just miss out on the Sweet Sixteen last year.
Incoming freshman Daquan Jones and Reggie Johnson can make an immediate impact, and we'll know a lot more about both of these teams' chances in March after this head-to-head collision.
3. UNC at Michigan State, (ACC/Big Ten Challenge), December 3rd
The ACC/Big Ten Challenge has not necessarily provided the most competitive of matchups in recent years, but this promises to be a good one. UNC has a bright Carolina blue target on their back, and while Hansbrough is expected to be 100 percent by early December, there is no certainty that Ginyard will be able to join him.
If Spartan freshman Delvon Roe is healthy (he had offseason knee surgery to remove cartilage), the Heels will miss Ginyard and the onus will be on Deon Thompson, Danny Green, and Hansbrough to up their defensive game a notch. Senior center Goran Suton and junior forward Raymor Morgan provide a frontline test unlike many UNC will see the rest of the regular season.
Though Michigan State has been to four Final Fours in the last decade, they occasionally have trouble living up to the preseason hype. Rarely would such an early game rank this high on my Top 10, but I have a lot of questions that I expect to be answered in this game, namely just how deep UNC will truly be against physical teams that have a quality interior game.
2. UNC at Duke, February 11th
I tried. I really did. I tried to justify a game that could supplant one of the two games versus the Blue Devils. Reality is reality: the greatest rivalry in college basketball just can't be beat in the regular season. Duke needs to be more consistent than last season, and I have little doubt that their early exit from the NCAA tournament has left a bitter taste in their mouths. Coach K usually manages to turn that bitterness on his foes with a vengeance.
Duke was subpar last season (for Duke) and they still handed UNC one of their two conference losses. Four starters return, though Greg Paulus has already been replaced by sophomore Nolan Smith. Expect the Blue Devils to have their lineup sorted out by the February 11th tilt vs. UNC, and as (almost) always, expect a thriller.
1. Duke at UNC, March 8th
Imagine a dream season in which Carolina enters its final game undefeated and faces a 14-1 Duke team whose only conference loss was to UNC on its home court slightly less than a month ago. This game is Hansbrough's last in the Dean Dome and Duke's opportunity to ruin not only Senior Night but the first undefeated season since Indiana's 1976 effort. Now wake up. This is the ACC, and the probability of any part of that scenario being true is pretty low. Still, a college basketball fan can dream. Tar Heel fans expect a dream season; Duke would love to turn their final regular season contest into a nightmare before the usual rigors of the ACC Tournament.
This is good enough to keep ME occupied until March!