The 14th-ranked UNC Tar Heels host the NC State Wolfpack in the former’s home opener to conference play. Roy Williams is 25-3 against the Wolfpack since coming to Chapel Hill, and while this NC State team looks to be the most talented that Raleigh has had in some time, the Heels will look to continue that dominance on Saturday night. The game is scheduled to be played at 8:00 PM and will be broadcast on ESPN.
The Heels have had a sub-optimal start to ACC play, first losing to Georgia Tech in Atlanta and then pulling out a squeaker at Clemson. The reasons given for these subpar performances have been all over the place, but the results on the field say two things loud and clear: The Heels have been turning the ball over at an unacceptable rate, and the ball is not going into the paint. Free throw shooting has been down for the past few games, as have the Carolina big men’s shot attempts.
Additionally, the Heels began the season assisting, it seemed, almost every made basket. The team’s assist:field goals made ratio has been disconcertingly low in ACC play, 30:59 for the two games combined (38 turnovers in that same timespan, by the way). This is another stat to keep an eye on, and one that will have to improve immediately for the Tar Heels to get where they want to be in conference play. Joel Berry in particular, keeping in mind that he was extremely ill over the Christmas holiday, had 4 assists in those two games. His season average is 4.4 of them per game.
One of the big storylines for this game, of course, will be the return of Theo Pinson. He is not expected to start or play starters’ minutes right away, although he may depending on how he looks in his first game action since April of 2016. Even in limited minutes, though, his energy, athleticism, passing ability, defense, rebounding, and versatility will be a welcome gift to a team that has looked in need of the kind of spark that Pinson brings to the lineup. His ability to defend positions 1-4 will be especially helpful against an NC State team that spreads the floor. Additionally, he will be instrumental in spelling a UNC backcourt that has struggled recently.
This season, all eyes have been on freshman point guard phenom Dennis Smith Jr., and he has for the most part delivered. While he showed some jitters early, he has since shaken them off entirely, and is averaging 19.6 points, 4.1 rebounds, and 6.5 assists per game. His most recent game was his best, where he collected a triple-double against a ranked Virginia Tech team.
Much of the talk leading up to this game will deservedly have been about the upcoming matchup between Smith and Berry, two of the nation’s best point guards. Berry is one of the team’s better perimeter defenders, but he is sure to have his hands full with Smith, who is shooting 47% for the season and 39% from behind the arc despite not being known as a particularly good shooter coming out of high school (it should be noted that despite the gaudy percentage, Smith has not been an extremely willing shooter). Roy Williams said in his most recent press conference that Smith “doesn’t really have any weaknesses,” and while it’s a little hyperbolic, it’s not far off. If he has a weakness, it’s his propensity to turn the ball over, which he does over 3 times a game.
However, the Wolfpack is far from “Dennis Smith, Jr. and guests.” Five players on the NC State team average in double figures scoring, led by sharpshooting wing players Torin Dorn and Terry Henderson. Both are averaging over 40% from behind the arc this season, with Dorn averaging an eye-popping 48.7%. The Heels will have to make sure that every look he gets is contested, because with those numbers, an open one is probably going down. Maverick Rowan has also been a shooter, though his numbers are down this season. The Heels, although their overall three-point defense has been good, have been burned by shooters this season, so this will definitely be something to keep an eye on.
The Wolfpack big men are solid as well, led by talented freshman Omer Yurtseven and junior Abdul-Malik Abu, who has gone from a decent player to a very good one with the introduction of Smith to the offense. Yurtseven is a bit of a stretch player, so the Tar Heel bigs may need to step outside their comfort zone on defense. They are very good defensive rebounders, which may challenge North Carolina’s offensive rebounding prowess that has gotten them so much success this season, but their offensive rebounding has been lackluster, which gives the Tar Heel bigs an opportunity to take away second chances.
The Wolfpack is coming off by far their best game of the season, a win against Virginia Tech in which Roy Williams gushed that they looked even better than the Kentucky and Indiana games that the Tar Heels have played. Kenpom and Vegas may not like them (Kenpom has them ranked only #51 in the nation, and both his predictor and Vegas, as of this writing, have UNC as 14-point favorites), but the Pack are a dangerous team, and one that UNC is going to have to step up in order to beat.
My Prediction: UNC 84, NCSU 78