The ACC office released the comprehensive schedule for the 2011-12 basketball season earlier this week with North Carolina fans finally getting a roadmap for what promises to be an exciting year. To help set the table, we're taking a month-by-month look at the Tar Heels' itinerary.
The big game: November 11 against Michigan State in the Carrier Classic. Even though the Tar Heels will likely start the season as the No. 1 team in the country, they certainly won't have much opportunity to ease into things. The hype will be huge on opening night when UNC and Michigan State play aboard the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier near San Diego. On Veteran's Day no less.
Whether the game is played outdoors or under the deck will depend on the weather. But as far as novelties go, this should be a cool way to get things started. As for what the Spartans will bring to the table? Tom Izzo's squad, which struggled to a 19-15 mark last season after opening the year at No. 2, has rebuilding to do. Its three biggest stars from a year ago - Kalin Lucas, Draymond Green and Durrell Summers - all graduated, leaving guard Keith Appling as the team's most high profile returner.
Izzo also hasn't had a whole lot of success head-to-head against UNC and Roy Williams. Carolina has won the past five meetings, including an 89-72 blowout triumph in the 2009 national title game.
Potential stumbles: November 30 against Wisconsin in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. Back in the late spring, former Wisconsin athletic director Pat Richter fired a few shots at Williams, still apparently miffed over comments Williams made 11 years ago in criticizing a dull and low-scoring 2000 Final Four game between the Badgers and Michigan State. (The halftime score of that contest was 19-17). That mini-controversy helps set the table for an intriguing UNC-Wisconsin battle in the ACC-Big Ten.
But on game night, the battle between point guard Kendall Marshall and Jordan Taylor should be entertaining. The two floor generals struck up a relationship earlier this summer at Chris Paul's camp.
Notable: The Heels are headed back to the Las Vegas Invitational for Thanksgiving weekend where they will open with South Carolina and then play either UNLV or Southern Cal the following night. At some point during the trip, Williams and his assistants are certain to blow off some steam by bellying up to a craps table or two. UNC won this event in 2008 on its way to a school record 36 wins.
Projected record for the month: 7-0
Projected overall record at the end of the month: 7-0
The big game: December 3 at Kentucky. The Tar Heels still remember the sting of falling 76-69 to the Wildcats in the Elite Eight last season. Emotional scars like that never fully heal. But as the Heels pursue their sixth NCAA championship, their first huge test will come in Lexington on the first weekend of December.
If you thought the Tar Heels' roster was impressive, wait until you see the crop of talented freshmen UK coach John Calipari has brought to campus, with four players ranked in the top 25 of Rivals' Class of 2011 recruiting rankings. Expect the NBA scouts to gravitate toward this one. Then sit back and enjoy what should be a March-caliber game three weeks before Christmas. If all breaks right, this could wind up being No. 1 vs. No. 2.
Potential stumbles: Winning at Rupp Arena will be a monumental challenge. The Tar Heels will also have to be sharp on Dec. 21 when they welcome Texas to Chapel Hill. The Longhorns have beaten Carolina in each of the last two seasons. Rick Barnes' club will be young and inexperienced coming to the Smith Center after losing both Jordan Hamilton and Cory Joseph early to the NBA Draft after last season. But a strong class of freshmen, headlined by point guard Myck Kabongo.
Notable: After returning from Kentucky, North Carolina will go six full weeks before playing another game outside of Chapel Hill. A Dec. 6 game against Evansville begins a 42-day, nine-game homestand.
Projected record for the month: 6-1
Projected overall record at the end of the month: 13-1
The big game: January 14 at Florida State. ESPN will send its GameDay crew to Tallahassee for a battle early in the ACC schedule that should be captivating. The Seminoles, don't forget, advanced to the Sweet 16 last season and missed out on a golden opportunity to put an early end to VCU's Cinderella story.
And while Leonard Hamilton will have to scramble a bit to replace his top two players from last year, Chris Singleton and Derwin Kitchen, the 'Noles remain loaded with talent, enough to cause Carolina significant trouble. Big man Bernard James is being touted as a possible NBA draft pick for 2012 and might soon become one of the most entertaining players in the conference to watch. Michael Snaer and Ian Miller may also be ready for breakout years.
Potential stumbles: If the Heels manage to leave Florida State with a win, they'll have to guard against a letdown five nights later at Virginia Tech. Miami's visit to the Smith Center on Jan. 10 could also be troublesome. The Hurricanes have all five of their starters back from a year ago, including All-ACC guard Malcolm Grant. And new coach Jim Larranaga should be able to get the Hurricanes to reach their potential.
Notable: UNC's only game with Georgia Tech this season will come Jan. 29 in Chapel Hill. That's a relief for Roy Williams, who has found trips to play in Atlanta quite troublesome. The Tar Heels are 1-4 at Georgia Tech since Williams returned to campus in 2003. Also worth noting, Carolina will attempt to extend its 10-game winning streak over N.C. State on Jan. 26 when the Wolfpack comes to the Smith Center.
Projected record for the month: 7-1
Projected overall record at the end of the month: 20-2
The big game: February 8 versus Duke. Look, common sense says that the Tar Heels should have all the pieces in place to run away with the ACC regular season championship. But last season, that's what we all thought about the Blue Devils before a young and feisty Tar Heel team snuck up and edged the Devils at the finish line. So it's worth keeping an eye on Carolina's top challenger for ACC supremacy.
Realistically, Duke will have a lot of rough edges to smooth out in the early parts of this season. But by the time they travel down 15-501 for their first battle with UNC, the Devils may be much more dangerous as players like freshman Austin Rivers plus juniors Seth Curry, Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly get comfortable with their roles.
Over the past eight seasons - in the Coach K vs. Roy Williams era - Duke leads the rivalry series 9-8, by virtue of last season's 75-58 win in the ACC tournament championship game. In the 21st century, the teams have split their regular season meetings six times.
Potential stumbles: A trip to Miami on Feb. 15 could be dangerous because of how good we expect the Hurricanes to be this season as mentioned above. Three afternoons later, UNC will put its home winning streak against Clemson on the line. The Tar Heels are 55-0 all-time against the Tigers in games played in Chapel Hill. It's doubtful that streak is in jeopardy this season. But hey, you never know.
Notable: We update this eye-opening piece of trivia every single year. Roy Williams is a perfect 23-0 on Senior Days during his career as a head coach. This season, he'll attempt to send Tyler Zeller and Justin Watts out in style with a Feb. 29 game against Maryland. Given the history and the favorable match-up, we're betting next year at this time we'll be talking about Williams' 24-0 mark on Senior Days.
Projected record for the month: 7-1
Projected overall record at the end of the month: 27-3
The big game: The only March game set in stone on the schedule is a March 3 trip to Cameron Indoor Stadium where the Tar Heels will close out the regular season. But we're getting out the crystal ball and getting a pretty clear picture of the NCAA tournament. So when UNC faces Xavier in the South Region Final at the Georgia Dome on March 25, expect a big-time battle.
The Heels will arrive in that game thanks to wins over Mississippi Valley State and Missouri on the first weekend of the NCAA tournament in Greensboro and a defeat of Memphis in the Sweet 16. Then, they will face a big test from the Musketeers, whose All-American Tu Holloway will be one of the best all-around playmakers in the college game this season.
Potential stumbles: That glorified friggin' cocktail party at the Georgia Dome, marketed better as the ACC tournament. As has been well documented, Roy Williams doesn't get too caught up in the end result of the conference tournament.
Of the seven teams Williams has taken to the Final Four, only one - the 2007-08 Tar Heels - won its conference tournament. So don't be surprised if the Tar Heels duck out of this year's event in Atlanta a bit early. Williams' two national championship teams at Carolina each suffered ACC tournament semifinal losses.
Notable: A few more Williams tidbits. The Hall of Fame coach is 21-0 all-time in first-round NCAA tournament games. UNC, meanwhile, has an overall NCAA tournament record of 24-5 under Williams.
Projected record for the month: 5-2
Projected overall record at the end of the month: 32-5
The (admittedly premature and out of left field) forecast: Again, we're going to the crystal ball. Yes, Tar Heel fans can begin booking those flights to New Orleans and setting up plans for a Final Four weekend filled with Bourbon Street shenanigans.
But will the Tar Heels win it all in the Big Easy the way they did in 1982 and 1993? Unfortunately, we're (tentatively) saying no.
A national semifinal win over Florida will set up a title-game showdown with Ohio State. And just like in '82 and '93, the title game madness will be obvious. In a back-and-forth game, UNC's Harrison Barnes will deliver a big-time performance. But in the game's final minutes, Barnes' Buckeye buddy Jared Sullinger will steal the show.
Final score: Ohio State 79, UNC 75.
Projected record for the month: 1-1
Projected overall record at the end of the month: 33-6