Ah, N.C. State. The team Harrison Barnes and John Henson crushed by twenty last year in Chapel Hill. And then again by twelve in Raleigh. A team that is basically the same as the one that Carolina so easily handled last year. Sure, there are a few new freshmen, but their playing time is limited; it's for the most part the same crowd. UNC owns this team. So why am I concerned.
It's not new coach Mark Gottfried, or at least nothing in particular about him. True, new coaches have had some success when underestimated by the Heels, none more so than Gottfried's predecessor, Sidney Lowe. But a lot of new coaches have entered the conference in the past few season, and it's not like I had a sense of unease over Jeff Bzdelik or anything
I think it's that I'm tied as closely to the miseries of State fans as i used to be, and more of their optimism is filtering in than has in years past. Because on paper, this team hasn't changed much from last year's model, outside of losing Tracy Smith. The offense now first and foremost goes through C.J. Leslie, who has improved his shooting considerably this year, at the expense of rebounding, which becomes more difficult without Smith in the paint to do the yeoman's work. He's also a bit more turnover prone. He's joined in the paint by Richard Howell, who is also little-changed from last year's model. He's a little more involved in the scoring but mostly he's the main rebounder on the team, a job he does very well, residing in the Top 50 nationwide in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentage. But rebounds are the Heels' strength, and unless they pull another Florida State performance, they should more than hold their own.
Sure, there's a chance Scott Wood could become the third Tar Heel opponent in as many games to just catch fire from behind the arc. He hasn't in the past, but that's what he's on the court to do. He's taken more threes than his next two teammates combined this season (C.J. Williams and Alex Johnson, both seniors). Wood will probably find himself matching up against Barnes – whose perimeter defense is vastly underrated – or Reggie Bullock, no slouch in that department himself.
No, when it comes down to it, I'm concerned about Lorenzo Brown. Last year he was the brightest point of either of the two Wolfpack performances against Carolina, coming off the bench to score twenty points in Chapel Hill, and managing eleven in Raleigh. He hit only one three-pointer against the Heels last year, instead generating a lot of his own points with drives from the perimeter or his five steals in the two games. He was a freshman. Now he's a sophomore. He's also the new point guard.
And he gets Carolina in their first game without Dexter Strickland, perimeter defender extraordinaire.Which means he'll draw a combination of Kendall Marshall or Bullock, both good defenders, but susceptible to being taken off the dribble, Marshall especially. And this coming in a game where the backup point guard spot for the Heels is still a bit of an unknown – expect Stillman White before TV timeouts, in little usage, although apparently everything has been tried in practice this week. This is a situation ripe for Brown to have a tremendous game, and a Carolina team that still hasn't hand'ed meltdowns all that well.
Typically, the jump in performance between the freshmen and sophomore year's is the biggest in college. State brought in a great freshman class in Lowe's final season. C.J. Leslie has slowly progressed; Ryan Harrow left for Kentucky. But Brown is the one making big gains, and he's my biggest concern in Chapel Hill tonight. In the paint, the Heels should have no problem, unless you're expecting a different Jordan Vanderberg to suddenly appear. Their defense is exploitable, their offense dependent on interior play the Heels can handle. But Brown? He's the threat.