photos courtesy UNC Athletic Communications
When the North Carolina women’s basketball schedule came out last Thursday, two numbers stuck out: 11 and one.
Of the Tar Heels’ 13 non-conference games in 2017-18, 11 of them come in Carmichael Arena. The other two games are at Myrtle Beach, S.C. -- and given head coach Sylvia Hatchell’s public adoration for the place, those might as well be at home.
Among those 13 opponents, only three finished in the top 100 of last year’s RPI rankings. And only one (Washington) cracked the top 70.
Put together, UNC’s non-conference slate means the Tar Heels won’t leave the Carolinas until the 2018 calendar year. And when they do, they could very well be sitting with a 12-1 record.
Admittedly, those are lofty expectations for a team that hasn’t had a winning season since 2014-15, before the four members of its top-ranked 2014 recruiting class left the program. But the Tar Heels bring back four All-ACC caliber guards in Jamie Cherry, Paris Kea, Destinee Walker and Stephanie Watts, and they add two highly-ranked recruits in Janelle Bailey and Jaelynn Murray to their frontcourt.
And with a schedule as favorable as this one, North Carolina could be clicking early.
With the exception of last year, the Tar Heels’ second game of the season has come against quality competition in recent years: 2013 vs. Tennessee (L, 81-65), 2014 vs. UCLA (W, 84-68), 2015 vs. Oregon (L, 79-77). This year, UNC hosts a Nov. 12 contest against Colorado, which finished 17-16 last season and lost in the first round of the Pac-12 Tournament. For as shaky as the Tar Heels were in 2016-17, their RPI sat just eight spots bellow the Buffaloes.
North Carolina doesn’t face another real test until Nov. 29 against Minnesota, a team that UNC beat by 14 points last season in the Bahamas. Then, it’s four more home walk-overs until a Dec. 17 date with Washington in Myrtle Beach. But the Huskies are without both of their double-digit scorers from last season -- including NCAA all-time leading scorer Kelsey Plum, who went No. 1 overall in the 2017 WNBA Draft.
Should the Tar Heels enter conference play with a healthy win-loss record, it could do wonders toward mending their recent ACC woes.
After winning 10 conference games in 2014-15, UNC has won just seven combined ACC matchups in the past two seasons. The Tar Heels gets Louisville and Miami at home this year, and they managed to beat a talented N.C. State team last season to snap a five-game losing streak. They’ll have to travel to Notre Dame -- almost an assured loss every season -- and Florida State, two top-10 teams a year ago. But even chalking up a few likely losses is a softer blow than what North Carolina has expected the past two seasons.
Of course, everything looks good on paper. Injuries could strike again, as they did last season, and UNC has yet to show it can convert its assembly of talent into consistent success. But 11 non-conference home games help, as does having only one proven threat in the first 13 games. It’s been a long time coming for North Carolina, and an accommodating schedule just might do the trick.