Pack looks to break UNC's hold on series
North Carolina has dominated its series with N.C. State recently, but there will be a reversal of roles when the Tar Heels visit the Wolfpack tonight at PNC Arena (7 p.m., ESPN).
For the first time since Jan. 20, 1990 — before any of the UNC players were born — N.C. State enters the game ranked while the Tar Heels aren't.
UNC (13-5, 3-2 ACC) has won 13 straight games and 19 of the past 20 against the Wolfpack, with 14 of those wins coming by double-digits.
But No. 18 N.C. State (15-4, 4-2) is the favorite this time, even if it hasn’t quite kept up with its preseason billing as ACC favorites.
The Wolfpack enter the game 11-0 at home, including an 84-76 win over then-No. 1 Duke two weeks ago. Their biggest strength is a balanced offense — the Wolfpack are third in the country in field-goal percentage (51.0) are one of six teams with five double-digit scorers (a sixth, Rodney Purvis, averages 9.9 points a game).
“It’s always more difficult to prepare for an opponent that has everybody who can score,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “And they can score inside, they can score outside, they get fouled, they’re shooting 51 percent from the floor. So, offensively, they can really hurt you. And then they rebound the ball on the offensive end, as well.”
By comparison, UNC shoots 44.5 percent and has only three active players averaging at least eight points — James Michael McAdoo at 14.7, Reggie Bullock at 14.3 and P.J. Hairston at 11.9.
N.C. State’s offense is led by ACC preseason player of the year C.J. Leslie, who averages 15.3 points and 6.8 rebounds, and junior point guard Lorenzo Brown, who leads the ACC in assists (6.9) and is second in steals (2.1).
Senior Scott Wood is fourth in the ACC in 3-point percentage (42.1) and tops in free throw percentage (90.7), while senior Richard Howell is second in the ACC in rebounds (10.9) and has posted double-digit rebounds in seven straight games, the longest streak for an N.C. State player since Tommy Burleson 40 years ago.
Durham native T.J. Warren is second among ACC freshmen at 12.2 points per game is the league’s most accurate shooter, with a field goal percentage of 64.6, while fellow freshman Purvis is averaging 11.8 points in conference play.
“Lorenzo Brown is playing about as well as any point guard around,” Williams said. “Richard Howell is just a man on the backboards. C.J. dominates some games. Scott Wood can shoot the dickens out of it. Rodney Purvis gives them another element of speed on the break, and then T.J. Warren coming off the bench shooting 60 percent.”
Still, UNC has plenty of reason for optimism. While the Tar Heels have won three straight conference games, the Wolfpack have played poorly after beating the Blue Devils, losing at Wake Forest and at Maryland and barely getting past Clemson at home.
Also N.C. State players haven’t always risen to the occasion against their rivals. Wood is averaging just 4.8 points and shooting 22.6 percent (7-of-31) from behind the arc in six games against the Tar Heels.
“You just have to be there when (Wood) catches the ball,” Bullock said. “That one play when you feel like you’re too tired will probably be the play of the game. So whoever’s guarding him just has to run all night.”
Bullock said the fact that no current Tar Heel has ever lost to N.C. State wouldn’t be an advantage, though it certainly was a talking point for senior Dexter Strickland.
Speaking to CBSSports.com in the preseason, Strickland said N.C. State was “the least of our worries. Beat us one year and then they can talk smack. Until then, you can't put them in the mix."
Williams, who is 24-1 as a head coach against N.C. State (including 5-0 at Kansas), said Friday that he wished Strickland hadn’t made that statement. Asked if he at least liked Strickland’s confidence, Williams responded: “I like it when you back it up.”
NOTES — UNC junior Leslie McDonald will be serving the second game of his three-game suspension, which Williams said was issued because the backup guard “did not do what we expect of our student-athletes”. ... ESPN’s College GameDay will be broadcasting from PNC Arena. The show will air from 10 a.m.-11 a.m. on ESPNU and from 11 a.m.-noon and 6-7 p.m. on ESPN. GameDay heads to Chapel Hill on March 9 when UNC hosts Duke.