Pity poor N.C. State. This was to be their year; the ACC was a muddle with second place wide open, and the Wolfpack had Tracy Smith and an impressive trio of freshman to finally get them close to where their fanbase desperately wants them to be. They finished last season by winning six of their last nine, and if everyone thought UNC was going to turn it own this year with three freshmen of their own, why not State?
Sure the non-conference season was disappointing, but they were without Smith for almost all of it. Their four losses were by combined 70 points, true, but they were against a slate of tough teams – Georgetown, Wisconsin, Syracuse and Arizona. Coming into ACC play they had Smith back and the potential to really make a statement.
The schedule hasn't helped. After feasting on Wake at home, the Wolfpack met Boston College and FSU on the road, Duke and Miami at home, and Clemson on the road. Only Miami was a win; State sits at 2-4 in the ACC, andi Wolfpack fans are busy scouting replacement coaches. I doubt Sidney Lowe could save his job by sweeping UNC and making the NCAA's, and with a three game stretch of UNC, Virginia Tech, and Duke ahead of him, this team could be in a true tailspin in a matter of weeks. State is fighting for their season at this point, and they have the talent to do a pretty good job.
Let's start with Tracy Smith. He remains the teams leading scorer, and most of the offense is directed through him. He scored 20 points in each of last year's two games against the Heels, but he's a known quantity. Ever since the offensive load was dropped on his shoulders, he's rebounding has trended down to mortal levels, especially on the offensive boards. He will get his points, but won't garner the attention he once did.
That will be directed at the three freshmen, C.J. Leslie, Ryan Harrow, and Lorenzo Brown. Harrow has ignited State's own point guard controversy to echo the Marshall-Drew debate in Chapel Hill. Although he got his first start against Clemson, Harrow has been dominating last year's model Javier Gonzalez in playing time of late. This is because he's much less turnover-prone than Gonzalez and a bigger scoring threat, especially when driving. State on a whole has followed Harrow's lead, and kept a much better handle on the ball than last season. Harrow's usually joined in the backcourt by Brown, a shooting guard who doesn't typically shoot. Brown is mainly another avenue for getting the ball inside; when you're looking for someone to take the three, it will typically be sophomore Scott Wood, owner of the great stat "lowest Body Mass Index of any D-I player that saw action in over half of his team's minutes last season."
C.J. Leslie has been the biggest boost for this team, however. The 6'8" freshman leads the team in rebounding and blocks, and he's the anchor of the Wolfpack defense. In fact, State may over-rely on Leslie; he had significant minutes in the last two games despite playing sick to the point of being a liability. He had 3 points against Miami and 0 against Clemson, and it's no coincidence that both teams had huge second half runs to destroy early State leads. Also seeing time in the frontcourt is Richard Howell, State's very own Brian Zoubek; he's 5th in the nation on the offensive boards, but otherwise invisible when the Pack have the ball.
The bottom line is, this game is a giant, screaming trap for the Tar Heels. What's working in their favor is State's propensity for not generating many turnovers and their tendency to blow big leads. No ACC team has more experience digging themselves out of big holes than Carolina, and a home game against a rival should be enough motivation to pull the Heels through. A quick start like the first games against State in '08 and '09 would be ideal, as this is a Wolfpack team on the edge mentally. Letting them stick around and build confidence is a much more dicey proposition.