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Given the choice at the start of the year, North Carolina head coach Roy Williams probably would have gladly accepted a guaranteed 12–2 start (though he might have wavered if told Wofford was one of the two losses), but emerging from the next five games without adding at least another two losses looks like a much tougher proposition.
Those five games feature four teams currently ranked in the top 30 of Ken Pomeroy’s power ratings, starting with consecutive road games against ranked ACC opponents for only the third time in Roy Williams’ tenure at Carolina. UNC went 1–1 in such a stretch in 2004 (beating No. 16 Wake Forest and losing to No. 15 Georgia Tech) and 0–2 in 2013 (losing to both No. 8 Miami and No. 2 Duke).
This difficult stretch starts Wednesday night at No. 24 Florida State (11–2), which holds the nation’s third-longest home winning streak (27) and just gave No. 2 Duke all it could handle on the Blue Devils’ home floor Saturday. The Seminoles are also one of the few teams in the country long and athletic enough to run with Carolina’s small-ball lineups that have given opponents so much trouble, and their ability to heat up from outside makes them a serious threat.
That game is followed by a trip to No. 8 Virginia (12–1), which will surely apply the Wofford formula of forcing Carolina to defend the entire shot clock while limiting the Heels’ opportunities to run.
Things don’t get much easier after that, as next Tuesday, Jan. 9, Carolina then hosts a Boston College team that gave Duke its only loss, followed by a trip to Notre Dame (11–3) on Jan. 13 and then a home game against No. 25 Clemson (12–1) on Jan. 16.
It’s safe to say that Carolina would do well to emerge from this stretch at 3–2. Anything better than that would be an extremely positive sign about this team’s ability to play its way into the later rounds of the NCAA Tournament.
‘DEATH LINEUP’ WORKING
One significant development since Cameron Johnson’s return to the lineup has been Carolina’s ability to use its so-called “Death Lineup” of Joel Berry, Kenny Williams, Johnson, Theo Pinson, and Luke Maye. So far, so good, as that lineup is a combined plus-34 points over the past three games. It’s worth keeping an eye on how often (and when) Roy Williams chooses to employ this unit as the season progresses.
Perhaps more interesting (and perhaps concerning) is how much more productive Carolina has been with Luke Maye at the center position than the power forward position than with one of the younger big men on the floor.
On the one hand, Maye represents a matchup problem for most big men, so success with him at the 5 spot could be understood as a good sign. On the other, Carolina will need the young big men to provide defense and rebounding against the bigger and more physical teams remaining on the schedule, when going small for large stretches of games is unlikely to be as successful as the ability to employ small-ball lineups in spurts.
Going small for longer stretches may be a good option against Florida State, for example, but against a slow-paced, half court team like Virginia, Carolina will need to be able to rely on more traditional lineups for longer stretches.
The next five games will say a lot about the potential of this 2017–18 Carolina team, and the Tar Heels’ ability to be efficient with traditional lineups in addition to smaller lineups is one thing worth watching in addition to the simple win-loss outcomes.