For North Carolina, it's the most critical stretch run in school history.
The Tar Heels (14-9, 5-4 in the Atlantic Coast Conference) are in their worst position this late in a season since 1965-66, the last time they failed to go to either the NCAA or National Invitation tournaments. Mentioning the possibility of missing the NCAAs could be construed as heresy on Tobacco Road, but it's not far-fetched.
North Carolina will end its ACC regular-season schedule by playing four of its last seven games on the road. The challenging itinerary includes visits to No. 3 Duke, No. 23 Maryland and North Carolina State, which are a combined 36-1 at home this season.
Understand the Carolina blues now?
The Tar Heels will bus over tonight to N.C. State, which has won all 14 of its games at the new Raleigh Entertainment and Sports Arena. Carolina will try to avoid recording double-figure losses before the end of February for the first time in a decade, but that's the least of the Tar Heels' worries.
"When you have five wins and four losses in the league, I think all games in February are pivotal," third-year Carolina coach Bill Guthridge said. "We're at a point where any road win is a plus, and we then have to hold serve at home."
If not, these historic streaks will be in danger of ending:
An NCAA-record 29 consecutive seasons with at least 21 victories.
An NCAA tournament-record 25 straight appearances.
An ACC-best 35 seasons in a row of finishing at least third in the regular-season league standings.
If the ACC sends only three teams to the NCAA tournament for the second straight year, few would be surprised.
The ACC has a .685 out-of-conference winning percentage, which is seventh in the nation, and has dipped to No. 6 in the conference rating percentage index. Only three of its schools -- Duke (fourth), Maryland (10th) and North Carolina (29th) -- are in the RPI's top 36.
"The league has suffered the past two years," Georgia Tech coach Bobby Cremins said. "We don't have the respect we once had."
Said Guthridge: "I think at other times that the league has been overrated, but now we're underrated. We have exceptional balance, except for Duke."
Virginia has been away from home for two weeks, but the Cavaliers can't call it a vacation.
Virginia will conclude its four-game ACC road trip tonight at Georgia Tech, the longest away stretch for a league team since Maryland traveled for four straight in 1997.
The Cavaliers have lost two of three on the trip to fall into a four-team tie with Maryland, N.C. State and North Carolina for second place in the league.
"When you play with one senior, this has been a huge challenge," Virginia coach Pete Gillen said. "We would be thrilled to win one more in this four-game schedule."
Cremins, whose job has been rumored to be in jeopardy, has decided to share some of the hot seat with his Georgia Tech players. On Saturday, the 25-year coaching veteran altered his starting lineup by sitting Tony Akins and Jason Floyd in favor of T. J. Vines and Clarence Moore.
"It was nothing personal. We thought we needed to shake things up and get some enthusiasm back," said Cremins, whose Yellow Jackets have lost four of their past five. "We're trying to play little mind games to get us going."
Name the only ACC school that has a victory over a team ranked among the top 18 in this week's Associated Press poll.
Maryland is the only ACC team not to start a senior this season. Lonny Baxter's seven blocks against N.C. State on Sunday were the most by a Terrapin in an ACC game since Joe Smith had seven against Virginia on Feb. 1, 1995. North Carolina is the only league team without a win in a game decided by five points or less. The Tar Heels are 0-3 in those contests. Five Clemson players have undergone operations this season. Georgia Tech's Alvin Jones became only the seventh player in ACC history to record 300 or more blocked shots. N.C. State junior forward Kenny Inge, who had 16 double-doubles in his first two years, has had none in 20 games this season. ... Quiz answer: Maryland, which beat No. 11 Kentucky on Dec. 11.