This game is important.
Not because of any sense of rivalry, mind you. Rather, UNC needs to win this game to restore some order to a college basketball season that has been nothing short of chaotic. Just last week, St. John’s was 0-11 in the Big East, then took down Duke and Villanova in consecutive games. It’s part of this weirdness that reared its ugly head in Chapel Hill not long ago, featuring a 32% three-point shooter going 7/7 from deep (well, the weirdness of this in a UNC game is debatable), a Theo Pinson scoring takeover, and missed free throws galore. But now, there’s a month until Selection Sunday, and this season needs to come into balance soon. There’s no better time for that to happen than with a good old fashioned NC State beatdown.
So, about this State team. Not much has changed about them from the last time we saw them, so you can check out that preview here. In the last two weeks, they have continued their up-and-down nature, with a huge win against Notre Dame before a convincing loss at Virginia Tech. The biggest thing about this State team, just as it was then, is balance. They have six players averaging over 8.5 points per game, led by Allerik Freeman (of the unprecedented 7/7) at 14, and five players averaging at least 4 rebounds a game, led by Omer Yurtseven averaging seven. Similarly to UNC, they make very effective use of a rotation of excellent rebounding wing players to make up for their lack of effective personnel in the post. Abdul-Malik Abu has been incredibly disappointing this year after looking like a future pro as a junior. He plays just 17 minutes a game and averages 6 points on 5 shots per contest. Without him, post play for State is entirely up to Yurtseven and Lennard Freeman, an offensive black hole (just one assist on the season) who hits 67% of his shots, but doesn’t have a particularly varied or advanced game. This is a team that can be beaten in the post on both ends of the floor.
State’s guard play, on the other hand, is dangerous. They don’t shoot from the outside too often, ranking 201st in the country in three-pointers attempted per game (and this is a team that plays pretty quickly, ranking 47th in Kenpom’s adjusted tempo stat), but they have players who can stroke it. As a team, they hit just 33% of their outside attempts, but this is because Allerik Freeman drags them down, as he is simultaneously the team’s highest-volume shooter and its most inefficient. Every other player who regularly attempts three-pointers hits at least 34%, which isn’t a stellar mark but is an offensively competent one, and shows the ability to heat up. The Wolfpack guards are all effective drivers and distributors, but they really show up on the defensive end, as the team allows an even worse three-point percentage than they shoot and rank a respectable 53rd in the country in steals.
UNC will be playing strength-on-strength as far as this is concerned. As we saw in the win against Duke, UNC’s wing players can rebound with the best post players in the country when they’re firing on all cylinders, let alone players their own size. They aren’t as disruptive as the NCSU guards, but they are better shooters (with the exception of Theo Pinson), making this a fascinating matchup to watch. The point guard position will also be interesting to monitor, as Joel Berry seems to be breaking out of the funk he was in the midst of the last time these two teams met. He hasn’t been as consistent as he normally is, but he’s playing much better than he was, and he’ll want to make his mark on the likely last time he’ll play against the Wolfpack. Markell Johnson, meanwhile, is on a roll with 10 or more assists in each of his last five games (he’d done it twice this season before that). His scoring output has been shaky, but he is capable of going off like he did in Chapel Hill. Joel Berry helped shut down Trevon Duval on Thursday and will try and put in a repeat performance on the sophomore in Raleigh.
With star Luke Maye and the duo of Sterling Manley and Garrison Brooks becoming solid bench contributors, UNC should have an advantage in the post against Yurtseven and Lennard Freeman, which is where this game very well could be won. Maye will have to make use of his diverse offensive arsenal and make the NCSU bigs uncomfortable on defense, and while Yurtseven has significant size and athleticism on him, he has shown before that he is more than capable of producing despite that. A repeat of last year’s baseline drive that sent Yurtseven into the PNC Arena stands would not be unwelcome.
This game might mean more than your average ACC game, but only because of the embarrassment that comes with a loss. The little brother metaphor is an overused one, but it’s apt: You get no credit for beating your little brother at something, but give him an inch and he’ll crow about it like he curbstomped you. UNC’s felt that once this season, and something tells me they’re not eager to feel it again.
Prediction: 87-74 Heels