UNC Basketball: Pivotal Games Tar Heels Must Have to Avoid Missing Tournament

Brian LeighFeatured ColumnistJanuary 15, 2013

AUSTIN, TX - DECEMBER 19:  Head coach Roy Williams of the University of North Carolina Tar Heels looks on against the University of Texas Longhorns on December 19, 2012 at the Frank Erwin Center in Austin, Texas.  (Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images)
Cooper Neill/Getty Images

Joe Lunardi of ESPN.com released his latest Bracketology on Tuesday, and the North Carolina Tar Heels appear to be safe...for now.

In a discussion re: Lunardi's mock bracket, fellow ESPN.com writer Eamonn Brennan said the following of UNC's postseason outlook:

...How about North Carolina? The Tar Heels are hanging on the 11 line, without absolutely zero margin for error the rest of the way in a lopsided and arguably disadvantageous ACC schedule ... There's nothing quite like a potential NIT psychodrama at a blueblood program, is there...?

The possibility that Carolina could miss its first NCAA tournament since 2012 (and just the second time since 2003) is becoming dangerously feasible. They're only 4-5 against RPI Top 150 opponents, padding their record with six wins against some of the nation's worst (h/t ESPN.com).

Especially in a historically weak ACC—which provides Carolina scant opportunity to exalt its resume—that puts the Tar Heels in serious jeopardy.

But no team's kismet is beyond its control in mid-January. North Carolina is still the master of its fate, the captain of its goals. With solid performances in a number of key games, they might be able to stay safe despite presumed losses at, say, Cameron Indoor.

Here are three bubbly games the Tar Heels can ill afford to lose, even if they take care of business in the run leading up to them.


North Carolina State Wolfpack at North Carolina Tar Heels (2/23)

The Tar Heels travel to Raleigh in a week and a half, but that's not a game they necessarily NEED. It's a game they could use, sure, but a loss to the only team that slew Duke (on the same court the slaying occurred, no less) is exceedingly forgivable. 

Losing to them in Chapel Hill would not be.

The most disconcerting part of UNC's recent struggles was definitely the home loss to Miami. Not that Miami is a bad team to lose against—that's a tough squad to beat anywhere—but that North Carolina was unable to defend its home court at the start of a down ACC season.

Until that game, even in the midst of disappointment, North Carolina could hang its hat on its ability to defend home turf. The Tar Heels need to restore that facet of their season.

N.C. State already looks decent on paper, and if the Wolfpack hold serve against the weaker ACC teams, they'll look even better come February 23. That makes this a pivotal—and, to be frank, very winnable—opportunity for UNC to boost its computer profile.

That's an opportunity they would be wise to capitalize on.


North Carolina Tar Heels at Maryland Terrapins (3/6)

It's hard to tell exactly where the Maryland Terrapins will be come early March. They beat up on a soft nonconference schedule, then throttled Virginia Tech before dropping back-to-back games against Florida State and Miami.

Depending on how Maryland fares in the next few months, this will either be (a) an opportunity for an impressive road win, or (b) a chance to avoid a cant-lose road upset. Either way, it's a game North Carolina must have.

Which is scary, since while it's hard to forecast the Terps' future, they do have enough talent to win this game. Alex Len in a top-10 pick whenever he decides to leave College Park, Dez Wells hasn't missed a beat since leaving Xavier and the Terps brought in a big, tough freshmen class.

Whatever their record, the Comcast Center fans will be ready too—they always are when the Tar Heels come to town. Just three days before a crucial home game against Duke, this one has "trap" written all over it.


Duke Blue Devils at North Carolina Tar Heels (3/9)

This is the "mulligan" game on Carolina's schedule. As in, if and when they inevitably falter against someone they should beat in ACC play, a win here would provide them a mulligan. Heck, it might provide them two.

This contest is huge for all the reasons discussed in the N.C. State section—and then some. Everything is amplified when Duke comes to town. That desire to protect home court transforms into a biological need. 

Big games from all of the Tar Heels' disappointing stars would be necessary in this one. James Michael McAdoo, in particular, would need to feed off the crowd and play the best game of his career. He was the one who was supposed to contend for a Naismith this season—not Mason Plumlee. When the Dukies come to town, he needs to demonstrate why.

Otherwise, it might not just be the Naismith that McAdoo doesn't receive this season. It might be an NCAA berth as well.