Where: Dean Smith Center, Chapel Hill, NC
When: Thursday, January 26, 7:00 PM
Records: UNC 16-3, 3-1 ACC; NCSU 15-5, 4-1 ACC
There has been much made over the last few days about the fact UNC will be playing NC State with both teams off to a solid start in ACC play. For both of these teams to meet with the possibility of a top four finish for each has been a rare instance in the last two decades. The most recent example was 2006 when UNC finishes 2nd and NCSU 4th in the standings. UNC lost to NC State in the first game the following season and since then the Heels are riding a ten game winning streak. The primary reasons for that stretch of dominance were connected to the man who was fired last March. NC State, now under Mark Gottfried, has given off the impression that it may actually have a basketball program again. The team on the court is fairly organized, plays like they actually have been coached in practice and the 2012 recruiting class has elite players in it. This Mark Gottfried coached Wolfpack team is not the same mess of a pushover the Sidney Lowe teams were.
The good news for UNC is Roy Williams is always up for this game whether NCSU is good or not. Also benefitting UNC is the fact the players on this team understand that. John Henson clearly had a great time playing NCSU last season. He controlled the boards, scored almost at will and completely screwed with C.J. Leslie's head by repeatedly blocking his shot. Harrison Barnes' first game against NCSU last season was 25 point outing and the first real sign of the Harrison Barnes we all expected. The second game was not nearly as easy but both Barnes and Henson played huge games. The question is does the trend continue this season or do we see someone else like Tyler Zeller step up and do to the Wolfpack what his brother did to them in November.
While the Big Three are always going to draw attention, the player to keep an eye on is Reggie Bullock. The Kinston sophomore will make his first start replacing the injured Dexter Strickland. The player who is stepping up to a bigger role is always worth noting for the very fact they could explode for a big game when given the opportunity. In Bullock's case, we know he is capable, just ask Boston College and Clemson. The other key area that bears watching will be the defense. If UNC decides to come out and play top level defense as they did at Virginia Tech, NCSU will have trouble producing offensively. Making that somewhat difficult is the loss of Strickland raising a question of who will guard NC State's Lorenzo Brown at the point. If it is Kendall Marshall, Brown could be very effective. The Pack's three point ace Scott Wood will require attention, probably from Barnes who will need to chase him around screens and all over the court as he tries to get open looks from three.
UNC needs to bring the same game they came out of the locker room with in the 2nd half at Blacksburg. It is a little early to look at the standings but UNC needs to take care of business in this game and the next three which comes against teams from the lower half of the league before hosting Duke.
UNC 85 NCSU 71