Photo by Todd Melet

The Tar Heels are 2-2 starting ACC play in the old year.

In Roy Williams’ first season back at UNC, his team began ACC play on December 20, 2003, and it was a doozy against Wake Forest, the same school the Tar Heels open the new conference season against Saturday at noon in the Smith Center.

It was the first of only four ACC games Ol’ Roy’s teams have played before the New Year, splitting all four. That Deacons team had a North Carolina-bred backcourt, freshman Chris Paul and sophomore Justin Gray, who combined to average 32 points.

Both teams had won their first six games and each had a chance to win its seventh straight in regulation, the first overtime and the second overtime. But Wake center Eric Williams, yet another North Carolinian, scored the last five points in the third overtime to ice the Deacons’ 119-114 victory.

Williams must have wondered what the rest of his ACC coaching career would look like after losing one of the greatest games in conference history in his first try. “Amazing,” he called it. “Disappointing for us, exhilarating for them.”

The Deacons went on to win their first 11 games but only went 10-10 in their last 20 to finish 9-7 in the ACC and lose in the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA tournament. The Tar Heels struggled as Williams changed the work ethic of the players he inherited from Matt Doherty, and they went only 8-8 in the ACC for fifth place, but good enough to get Carolina back in the Big Dance for the first time in three years, losing in the second round to Texas.

Williams has gone on to dominate the ACC regular season ever since, finishing first eight times, more than any other school and coach during his Tar Heel tenure. He said he’d remember that first Wake Forest game for the rest of his life, and you can bet he will be thinking about it Saturday.

His now 13th-ranked team is a heavy favorite to defeat coach Danny Manning’s Deacons, who are 7-5 and next to last in wins and losses in the power-packed ACC. Manning lost his star sophomore center John Collins, the 19th pick in the 2017 NBA draft.

The current Tar Heels are 11-2 and in the polls but they are a long way from proving they can contend for a third straight Final Four. ACC play will determine that, with better opponents, more experienced big men and typical high-level coaching. If tomorrow’s game goes to triple overtime, it’s not a good sign.