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UNC vs. NC State: Three Things to Watch

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The Tar Heels look to continue their momentum with a win in Raleigh.

NCAA Basketball: Duke at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

The North Carolina Tar Heels are coming off their biggest victory of the season with a 82-78 home win over the Duke Blue Devils. They looked like the elite (or at least near-elite) team many of us have been waiting to see. The Tar Heels’ upcoming tilt with NC State will be their second game in three days. Can they continue to play at a high level as they go on the road against the Wolfpack? Here are three things to watch:

The Rivalry?

Since returning to Chapel Hill, Roy Williams’ record against the Wolfpack is 27-4. His winning percentage versus State (87.1%) is his best such percentage against any team in the ACC. One of those four losses, of course, came a couple weeks ago in the Dean Dome. Currently in his fifteenth season with the Tar Heels, Williams has never been swept by the Wolfpack. A loss tomorrow would change that.

It hurts that the first meeting was at home for the Tar Heels, and it hurts even more that they had ample opportunities down the stretch to pull away and failed to do so. Now, UNC will look to steal one in Raleigh in what is sure to be a hostile environment. NC State fans are going to be riled up, too, after Joel Berry’s statement about this rivalry, or lack thereof.

Speaking of, Berry does have a point. There has long been hatred between these two teams, but as mentioned above, there isn’t a team in the ACC that Roy Williams has had more success against. For the current players who have all grown up during the Williams-era, they haven’t witnessed a time period where the Wolfpack were truly competitive with the Tar Heels, and that narrative hasn’t changed since they’ve arrived in Chapel Hill. Last season’s series was a good example, as the Heels won both matchups by a combined 75 points.

That being said, the last meeting left a bad taste in these players’ mouths, regardless of whether it had anything to do with the name on the opposing team’s jersey. While Berry refrained from calling it a rivalry, he did assert that he didn’t like the Wolfpack. Expect Berry and his teammates to be out for blood tomorrow.

Al Freeman

Al Freeman wasn’t exactly headlining UNC’s scouting report coming into the first meeting. Coming off the bench, he is shooting a mediocre 31.6% from three point range this season. However, some players just absolutely feel themselves when they play the Tar Heels. Just ask Texas’ Javan Felix, who averaged 9.5 points throughout his career as a Longhorn, but averaged 15 ppg in three meetings with Carolina, including a game-winner over the Heels in 2015 when Felix was a senior.

Like Felix, Freeman was feeling himself in Chapel Hill. He hit all seven of his three point attempts and finished with 29 points for the game. Granted, this was Freeman’s first game ever against the Tar Heels. However, given his woeful percentages heading into that game and the fact that he’s just 1-12 from beyond the arc since, Freeman has all the makings of the type of player who simply hits another level when he plays Carolina.

Freeman’s shooting outburst in the Dean Dome was arguably the single biggest factor that allowed the Wolfpack to escape with a win. This time around, expect the UNC coaching staff to key in on Freeman in order to prevent a repeat performance.

Defense

This is an obvious one, and something that’s been talked about a lot, but this time it has a positive spin. We saw something we really haven’t seen all season out of these Tar Heels in their recent victory over Duke. They locked in and played great team defense for 40 minutes. You may think giving up 49 first half points doesn’t necessarily reflect this, but a combination of fast pace and Duke making tough shots makes that number a little deceiving. Regardless, the Tar Heels went on to hold the Blue Devils to 29 points in the second.

In light of their struggles, questions have surfaced as to whether these Heels are capable of defending at a high level. It turns out, they are. On Thursday, Carolina displayed truly elite defense. Obviously, these players are always going to get up for a game with such magnitude, but they may have awoken a sleeping giant. They communicated, they hustled, and they were as cohesive as they’ve ever looked. Allowing dribble penetration has been a big weakness and reason why teams have gotten so many open looks from the perimeter. However, Joel Berry and Kenny Williams didn’t give an inch to Duke’s quick guards. This allowed their teammates to stick to their men and deny kickouts, which consistently put drivers in tough situations with nowhere to go.

I could go on about the revitalized defense we saw against Duke, but the overarching theme is this: they played together. When this team plays together, good things happen. If they can continue to bring that fire and focus, they’ll have a great chance to return the favor in Raleigh.