In his fourth season at N.C. State and a veteran of the 919 area code’s neighborhood basketball wars, Abdul-Malik Abu has simplified his approach to good and bad.
“Me personally,” the Wolfpack’s 6-8 forward said on Friday, “I just don’t like anything blue honestly. I don’t know if its a rival or what you are going to call it. But that’s how it is. We are real close. People talk and it’s a lot of fun.”
This season, N.C. State holds the upper hand against the more celebrated teams that wear blue.
The Wolfpack beat Duke 96-85 on Jan. 6 at PNC Arena and toppled North Carolina 95-91 in overtime on Jan. 27 in Chapel Hill.
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N.C. State aims for the regular-season sweep of the Blue Devils and Tar Heels when UNC comes to PNC Arena on Saturday at 2 p.m.
UNC guard Joel Berry stoked the rivalry even before his Tar Heels beat Duke, the one and only team he considers a rival, 82-78, at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill on Thursday night. Berry said he doesn’t consider N.C. State a rival, just Duke.
After N.C. State lost 85-75 at Virginia Tech on Wednesday night, Wolfpack sophomore center Omer Yurtseven gave him a verbal side eye.
“They are going to try to get revenge on us,” Yurtseven said. “I heard some weird comments from the other team’s players. But I don’t really care what they said. We beat them at their home. Now they are going to try to come back at us at our home. We’ll be ready for them.”
Abu said he easily dismissed Berry’s comments.
“It would only be insulting if you value their opinion, if you put them on your level,” Abu said. “You have to look past that and let your game speak.”
N.C. State’s coach Kevin Keatts staked out the high ground.
“I know that everybody is going to take what Berry said and they are going run with it,” Keatts said. “He’s been in the league a lot longer than I have. He’s been in the league for four years. You can’t make guys say it’s a rivalry game if they don’t think it is. I respect it. If he doesn’t think it’s a rivalry game, that’s what it is. We are just excited about playing the game. For us, we have another opportunity to play a really good basketball team on our home floor.”
It would only be insulting if you value their opinion, if you put them on your level. You have to look past that and let your game speak.
Abdul-Malik Abu, on UNC guard Joel Berry’s comments on rivalries
Keatts is focusing on the big picture. The Wolfpack (16-8, 6-5 ACC) are solidly in the running for an NCAA tournament berth. With four wins over teams in the top quadrant on the NCAA selection committee’s team sheets, N.C. State has put together a solid resume.
But there’s always room for more wins to help separate the Wolfpack from its competitors for those precious tickets to the tournament.
“When you get into February,” Keatts said, “there are teams that are playing meaningful basketball games and there are those who are not.”
N.C. State clearly is and sweeping the Tar Heels would send a strong message to the tournament committee – rivalry or not.
“I don’t know what to consider it,” Abu said. “I just know this game is important to our fans. We’re going out there and trying to get this win no matter what.”