North Carolina's players, coaches, and fans will assemble in the Smith Center one last time this winter on Tuesday night, as the Tar Heels (15-14 overall, 4-10 ACC) seek to get out of last place in the Atlantic Coast Conference regular season standings with a win over Miami (18-10 overall, 4-10 ACC).
The Hurricanes have struggled of late on the road, having lost its last six games away from Coral Gables going back to January 3, when they won at Pepperdine.
In fact, Miami is 0-7 on the road in ACC play this winter---which in and of itself should give UNC fans confidence that this is definitely a game that can be won, especially coming off Saturday's inspired effort at Winston-Salem.
In all the Hurricanes have four players averaging at least nine points per game---senior forward Dwayne Collins (12.3 ppg), senior guard James Dews (12.2 ppg), sophomore guard Malcolm Grant (9.5 ppg), and freshman guard Durand Scott (9.0 ppg).
Clearly there's some firepower in that group, and Grant in particular is a player that the Tar Heels will need to keep a close eye on, as he is making 42.7 percent of his three-pointer attempts on the season (53-of-124).
He's just the type of player who could get hot and try to spoil Senior Night, so the Tar Heel perimeter defenders will really have to do a nice job fighting through screens and getting their hands up in the faces of Grant and the other Miami shooters.
Defensively the Tar Heels are a little improved---evident in the way they slowed down Wake Forest's offense to a crawl over the weekend. They have the potential to force Miami into a tough scoring game as well if they continue to communicate and work together.
With Tyler Zeller back in the lineup the team has some presence in the low post without a healthy Ed Davis, and the freshmen---especially John Henson and Leslie McDonald---are clearly getting better.
This is simply not the type of game to regress for the UNC freshmen, and while they won't be on the court at the start of the game---that honor will be reserved for seniors Marcus Ginyard, Deon Thompson, and Marc Campbell, among others---there's no question that Henson, McDonald, and the other youngsters have to come ready to play tonight.
While it may not seem like it for some, tonight's game has a great deal at stake for the Tar Heels.
Get a win over Miami, and they're assured of avoiding finishing alone in the cellar of the Atlantic Coast Conference standings and having the dead-last No. 12 seeding going into the ACC Tournament. It's that simple.
The Tar Heels are currently tied with N.C. State and Miami at the bottom with identical 4-10 records.
A win for UNC would put them at 5-10, and even if they lost to Duke in Durham on Saturday night, a win over the Hurricanes ensures a tie-breaker in a deadlock and no worse than the No. 11 seeding.
NCSU still has a road game at Virginia Tech and at home against Boston College, so if UNC can manage to beat Miami, the Wolfpack would have to win both remaining games in order to finish ahead of the Tar Heels in the standings.
If N.C. State goes 1-1 or loses both games, the Tar Heels would finish ahead of them and get no worse than the No. 10 seeding in the ACC Tournament.
Given UNC's two triumphs over NCSU earlier in the season, the Tar Heels would hold the tie-breaker over the Wolfpack in the case of a deadlock, so the only way Carolina could finish dead-last in the ACC standings is if they lose to both Miami and Duke, and then N.C. State wins at least one more game.
It's a dreadful scenario that could very well play out unless the Tar Heels come out and take care of business against the Hurricanes, and given the fact that it's the last time Ginyard, Thompson, and Campbell will ever take the floor as UNC players, there's no question the house should be rocking and the players should be ready to play.
For Carolina to win, the bottom line is that they must stop Miami's dribble-penetration and avoid allowing them a bunch of wide-open looks from three-point range.
If capable Hurricane outside shooters like Grant, Dews (39.5 percent from three-point range) and Adrian Thomas (42.5 percent from three-point range) are left open and get hot, it could truly be a miserable night in Chapel Hill for the home crowd.
One thing that could help the Tar Heels tonight is that Miami isn't a much better free throw shooting team than UNC.
Carolina usually prides itself on high accuracy while making more free throws than its opponents attempt, but this season UNC ranks a surprising 10th in the league with a 65.3 percent average from the line.
Miami is making 66 percent of its free throws---which ranks eighth in the conference---so the team that comes up stronger in this category tonight may very well be the team that's in control down the stretch.
The bottom line is that for UNC to have any momentum heading into Cameron Indoor Stadium Saturday against a Duke team looking to exact revenge for multiple years' of shame at the hands of its arch-rivals, the Tar Heels need to beat Miami tonight. Period.
There's no more time for excuses for this UNC team.
Injuries or no injuries, crunch time is here, and in order to have a shot at the Blue Devils and then the rest of the ACC in Greensboro, it all starts with playing well and getting a win against Miami---while also giving Ginyard, Thompson, and Campbell a proper going-out in the Smith Center that they can remember for the rest of their lives.