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UNC Basketball vs. NC State: 3 Things to Watch

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Defense, effort, and the supporting cast will be under the microscope on Saturday.

North Carolina v Virginia Tech Photo by Lauren Rakes/Getty Images

The Tar Heels were out of sorts on Monday. Once again, the Tar Heels were unable to muster a winning, or even particularly competitive, effort on the road in the ACC. This has been a repeated trend and one that has caused growing alarm within the Carolina community. So what does one do when one has exhibited recurring symptoms? Why, get a diagnosis and prescription of course!

The diagnosis for the Tar Heels is that they are not the same team on the road and maybe, just maybe, don't take every opponent as seriously as they should (see Wofford). Looking past supposedly inferior competition is a disorder common in teams that have been perennial ACC Champions and National Finalists. The prescription for this disorder? A home rivalry game with NC State! Yes, this should clear that up, no problem. Roy Williams look past the Wolfpack? Wish.

Here are three things to watch for on Saturday night:

Which Team Starts Hungrier

Kevin Keatts is about to get one heck of a progress report. His predecessor Mark Gottfried effectively saw the writing on the wall in this exact matchup last season. Y'know, the one where Carolina won by 51 points? That game began the Wolfpack's reputation as a team that tended to quit when they started off poorly. Carolina blitzed them early and, well, kept blitzing them. Comments by Joel Berry after the return game in Raleigh cemented that reputation as the Wolfpack once again folded like a cheap tent. It will be interesting to see how the Pack perform one year later under their new coach.

Carolina, meanwhile, turned in a tired and lukewarm effort against an inferior Virginia Tech team, much as they did against Notre Dame, Wake Forest, and in the first half against Florida State. They've doubtless had to endure a brutal week of practice (can you imagine Roy with extra motivation before the State game?) and how they come out of the blocks will tell us if this team is locked back in.

Defensive Effort

UNC put forward one of its weakest defensive efforts of the year against the Hokies on Monday. They utterly failed to take the Hokies out of their transition game, allowed ten offensive rebounds (were beaten on the boards 36-35 overall), and gave up 12 three-point baskets. Some of this may be chalked up to fatigue; Joel Berry in particular looked gassed on defense, no doubt a product of the minutes he's been forced to play with Seventh Woods hurt and Jalek Felton awful, but the lack of desire to shut an opponent down was present in everyone, something that is hard to survive on the road in the ACC.

Carolina will be looking to bounce back defensively against the Wolfpack. State presents a different challenge than the Hokies: The Pack are horrendous from behind the arc, averaging 32% (the Hokies averaged 40%), but are stronger on the interior, scoring more in the post and averaging more rebounds. Sophomore Omer Yurtseven has made strides following his freshman campaign and will present a tough challenge to Carolina's big men. He's averaging 14 points on 62% shooting and can make open shots from beyond the arc. The baby bigs handling him and the Heels keeping the Pack out of transition will be key: If they force State to execute in the half court, this may be a very long night for Kevin Keatts' squad.

Best Supporting Actor

The Oscar Nominations came out this week (go Sam Rockwell!) and Carolina are in need of a strong supporting performance of their own. Monday's loss against the Hokies saw the Heels get strong leading performances out of Joel Berry and Luke Maye and...pretty much nothing from everybody else. This ain't Harold and Maude: We need the rest of the cast to perform or we don't have a movie.

So, which of the Tar Heels will step up and steal a few scenes? Former winners have been Kenny Williams and Cameron Johnson, who have turned in strong performances in past two-hour dramas (Kenny pretty much all year, Cam more recently), but were box office duds in Blacksburg. Perhaps Garrison Brooks or Sterling Manley, both recently relegated to bit-player roles, will have a big night, particularly on defense and on the glass. Or maybe Brandon Robinson will star in a breakout performance. Or, dare I say it, Jalek Felton will end his string of flops and remind us all just why we so excited to see him take the stage in the first place.

Or maybe let's just do it by committee. That whole star-vehicle thing didn't work out too well on Monday. It's time for an ensemble piece.