The Tar Heels have rung off four consecutive victories, with the latest coming against the #16 Clemson Tigers last Saturday. This most recent stretch has consisted of two ranked wins, two ACC wins, and three wins away from the Dean Dome. The head-to-head matchups aren’t the only reason North Carolina’s resume is getting so much praise nationally, as they moved up to #7 in the latest AP Top 25. Where the Heels have separated themselves from many others is the saturation of challenging opponents in short periods of time.
Hubert Davis and his squad have fared well and weathered the storm to this point, and as you have read, the team deserves a healthy amount of praise for doing so. The gauntlet continues tomorrow, though, as North Carolina will head to Raleigh in their third consecutive road ACC matchup to face the Wolfpack. NC State (11-3, 3-0 ACC) will likely join Pittsburgh and Clemson in having the crowd and team at its best when the Tar Heels come to town.
Here are three things to watch for in tomorrow’s matchup:
Armando Bacot vs. DJ Burns
Every time these two have matched up against one another, it’s been an emotional battle. Both bigs play with a lot of physicality and passion, and they don’t seem to get along too well. Burns and Bacot tallied similar scoring numbers in two contests last year, but Armando was dominant on the glass in comparison.
This is a vast matchup because it’s two of the best bigs in the ACC going at it. DJ Burns isn’t as tall as Armando, but he sure won’t back down from a fight down low. He also has some sneaky athleticism and an underrated post-game. All that to say, the most significant factor in this matchup is how it may shift momentum. The thousands packed into PNC Arena know the history between these two, and an already rowdy environment is just looking for something to feed off of.
Looking at where NC State has found success and where they haven’t to date, they go about as far as their perimeter shooting takes them. In their poorest offensive performances (Notre Dame and Ole Miss), the Wolfpack shot near 30% on FG’s and only averaged 53 PPG. In 9 of their 11 wins, they’ve scored 75 or more. If the guards knock down shots at a serviceable level, NC State has been challenging to beat. North Carolina has done an exceptional job not letting Pitt or Clemson get into a shooting rhythm in the last two games. Can they continue that in Raleigh?
On the other side of this narrative, the Tar Heels have been able to rally in games where they haven’t shot the ball at a high percentage. With this being the third consecutive road ACC game, you have to wonder if North Carolina will have to rely on some of their firepower to take down a rival and not so much on outlasting down the stretch. It feels like the Wolfpack will give UNC all they can handle, and whether these teams knock down routine shots could essentially be the difference.
Can the Wolfpack contest the Tar Heels on the boards?
North Carolina has yet to be the rebound-dominant team we used to see under Roy Williams. It has been an emphasis of the staff of late, and it’s beginning to improve. We know what might be brewing between Armando Bacot and DJ Burns. Where I see the Tar Heels with a significant advantage is the secondary options in crashing the boards.
NC State’s leading rebounder averages just five per game. Harrison Ingram, averaging just over six, has emerged as a significant complement to Armando’s dominance. The guards, specifically Cormac Ryan and RJ Davis, have shown that they are not afraid of sticking their noses in and fighting for a board either.
The Wolfpack’s rebounding has been spread out all year. Will that formula work against a team with two clear-cut workhorses on the glass? I’m not sure. Also, NC State likes to run many four-guard lineups, leaving a handful of mismatches and mostly playing through their backcourt. There is lots to monitor here with how State attacks North Carolina and attempts to counter the opposing style of the Tar Heels.