After UNC’s big road win against Louisville, they return home for a Tuesday night tilt against the Wolfpack of NC State. Just one month removed from the Heels’ victory in Raleigh, the two teams have gone in somewhat opposite directions. North Carolina is tied atop the ACC standings at 7-1, while State sits at 4-5 after setting all sorts of records in their 24-point performance on Saturday. In other words, with very few exceptions, it’s what we’ve come to expect in February.
That said, what are some things to look for when the Wolfpack come to town?
How good are both teams?
Here’s the deal. NC State, truthfully, does not have a signature win this season. That Auburn win at
PNC Marcus Paige-Luke Maye Arena has lost some luster as the Tigers are barely treading water at .500 in the SEC. Meanwhile, the Wolfpack’s non-conference schedule remains 351st in the nation, out of 353 teams.
In the ACC, they don’t own a win over a team with a winning conference record. They lost at home to Virginia Tech who were missing their starting point guard, played just seven players, and have feasted on a Charmin-soft ACC slate to date. Along the way State lost at Wake Forest and needed a buzzer-beating three at home against Clemson, thanks mostly to Brad Brownell channeling his inner Larry Fedora for comical late-game clock management.
Meanwhile, UNC certainly has marquee wins and now holds a 3-1 record against ACC opponents ranked in the top-25 when they played. Two of those wins, though, are against the aforementioned Hokies and NC State. The difference is that UNC doesn’t really have a “bad” loss, are 5-0 on the road, and seem to improve with every game. Meanwhile, NC State’s athletic director gets excited about moral victories against Virginia. So, there’s that.
Regardless, nine games into the season the ACC is arguably a self-licking ice cream cone, with very little clarity outside of Virginia and Duke. Tomorrow night will go a long way in both teams showing their true colors. Either UNC confirms it is a legitimate threat for the ACC title and moves to an 8-1 record, or NC State makes a case that they aren’t a product of an easy schedule and save their dwindling post-season chances.
Which Bench Shows Up?
UNC’s bench has been a case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde this season. What was thought to be a strength as turned into a mercurial unknown on a nightly basis. The last time these two teams met, State’s bench outscored the Heels 43-9. Already missing Sterling Manley, UNC expects to be missing Swiss Army knife reserve guard, Leaky Black for a second straight game.
That could be problematic against a State team that has nine players playing 10 or more minutes in conference play. Seven players play more than 18 minutes, and five players average 10 or more points. The Wolfpack, for all their shortcomings, are a deep and balanced team. It almost proved to be UNC’s undoing in Raleigh.
The good news is that UNC’s bench has continued to find ways to contribute without scoring. They were sensational on Saturday, as we mentioned in our three things learned. Seventh Woods and Brandon Robinson have fueled stretches of defensive dominance, and in Robinson’s case, timely shooting. Nassir Little has turned into a rebounding machine and scoring threat. They will all need to continue that strong play.
North Carolina only has three players averaging double-digit points, and eight players averaging 10 or more minutes. That playing time, though, is not as evenly dispersed as State’s. Most of those minutes belong to the top six players, with Robinson and Woods playing just 15.3 and 10.2 minutes per ACC contest. Both Andrew Platek and Brandon Huffman could steal a few minutes in the first half, but the burden is going to fall to Woods, Robinson and Little. If any of them have a bad day, State could leave Chapel Hill as the victor for the second straight year.
Luke Maye vs Markell Johnson
N.C. State only goes as far as junior starting point guard Markell Johnson takes them. State struggled to a four-point win against a depleted Notre Dame squad in South Bend when he sat out with an injury. He also did not play in the road losses at Wake Forest and Louisville. Against UNC, Johnson scored 11 points on 4-12 shooting and was an equally poor 3-11 for 14 points in the defeat against Virginia. In those games he had a combined six assists and eight turnovers. You get the point.
Many will also remember that Johnson also helped torch the Heels last season with an array of high ball screens, drives, and threes. Most recall Al Freeman’s seven threes are, but those don’t happen without Johnson at point guard. Johnson finished that game with 20 points on 7-15 shooting (5-10 from three), 11 assists and just 3 turnovers. Contain him and chances of victory noticeably increase.
The Heels, on the other hand, have Luke Maye. North Carolina’s success hasn’t been as dependent on his production as it was last year, but Maye has made it a point to play some of his best games against the team in red. Since his sophomore year in every game against State, Maye has exceeded his season averages. North Carolina is 4-1 in those games. Check it out:
2016-2017 season avg: 14.1 mpg, 5.5 ppg, 3.9 rpg,
2016-2017 at NC State: 19 min, 9 pts, 8 reb
2016-2017 vs NC State: 23 min, 13 pts, 7 reb
2017-2018 season avg: 32.2 mpg, 16.9 ppg, 10.1 rpg
2017-2018 at NC State: 36 min, 33 pts, 17 reb
2017-2018 vs NC State: 37 min, 31 pts, 12 reb (OT loss)
2018-2019 season avg: 29.5 mpg, 13.9 ppg, 9.7 rpg
2018-2019 at NC State: 36 min, 21 pts, 11 reb
2018-2019 vs NC State: ???
With a shortened bench, a big game from Maye is likely a necessity and State will understandably focus on shutting down 2018 All-America selection. If they are successful, it will be the first time.