North Carolina’s 85-60 win over Pittsburgh on Saturday was one that the Tar Heels could be happy about.
They did a lot of things right — played good defense, took care of the ball and remained composed in a tough ACC road environment.
But No. 15 N.C. State, UNC’s opponent on Tuesday, presents a different challenge.
The Tar Heels (11-3, 1-0 ACC) and the Wolfpack (13-1, 1-0) play Tuesday night at PNC Arena for their first of two matchups this year. Last year, UNC and N.C. State split the series in Kevin Keatts’ first year as the head coach of the Wolfpack, with both teams winning on the road.
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UNC is 15-4 at PNC Arena in the regular season against N.C. State.
“I get excited to go over there and play in their house,” UNC coach Roy Williams said.
The Wolfpack, through 14 games, appear to have improved over last year’s NCAA tournament team. The 13-1 start is the team’s best beginning since the 1973-74 season, in which N.C. State won a national championship. N.C. State ranks 10th in the NCAA’s new NET rankings, one spot ahead of the Tar Heels.
It will be another tough challenge for UNC team that has struggled away from home against some of the top teams in the country.
UNC is 3-1 on the road this season, but those wins were against Wofford, Elon and Pittsburgh. Its lone road loss came against then-No. 7 Michigan 84-67 on Nov. 28. UNC has also lost games on neutral courts to Texas 92-89 on Nov. 22, and then-No. 19 Kentucky 80-72 on Dec. 22.
A win against the Wolfpack would give the Tar Heels some much needed momentum as they continue into ACC play.
Here are four things UNC must do to beat N.C. State:
1. Avoid careless turnovers
UNC will make a few turnovers as it does every game. It comes with playing at a fast pace. But it’s the careless or unforced turnovers that irks Williams most.
Recently, UNC has taken good care of the ball. But it made a few careless turnovers late in its last two games games against Harvard and Pitt. Fortunately for UNC, it was well ahead of both opponents in those games.
N.C. State is seventh in the country in defensive turnover percentage, according to kenpom.com. The Wolfpack force a turnover on one-fourth, or 24.6 percent of opponents’ possessions.
UNC turns it over on 17.6 percent of its possessions, which is 96th in the country, according to kenpom.com.
UNC is 7-0 when its opponents have more turnovers, and 4-3 when it has the same or more turnovers than its opponent.
2. Stay in front of Markell Johnson
Williams said N.C. State junior guard Johnson, who had 20 points and 11 assists in the Wolfpack’s win against the Tar Heels last year, has improved since last season. He called him a “complete all-around player.”
“His shot is much better this year, his percentages are much better from the floor, percentages much better from the 3-point line,” Williams said. “And defensively he’s good, too.”
Johnson has the ability to get to the basket easily and score or find the open man. Last year, he averaged better than 7 assists per game.
In N.C. State’s win, Johnson used a pick-and-roll to create mismatches with UNC’s big men late in the game. He hit multiple clutch shots down the stretch to help N.C. State win 95-91 in overtime.
Johnson is averaging 12.4 points per game and 4.2 assists. He is shooting 51 percent from behind the 3-point line and 60 percent from the floor overall. Johnson had 20 points and 5 assists in N.C. State’s 87-82 win over Miami in Coral Gables.
When asked how to slow him down, Williams said, “Try to stay in front of him.”
“Try to stop him from penetrating,” Williams said. “The same thing you do everybody.”
3. Stay out of foul trouble
Foul trouble was one of the issues that threatened to hurt UNC in the win against Pitt on Saturday. The Panthers got to the free throw line 15 times in the first half, and 17 times in the second half.
Both senior guard Kenny Williams and sophomore forward Garrison Brooks were in foul trouble, and coach Williams was forced to go to his bench.
Fortunately for UNC, the bench made a big impact in that game. UNC forward Brandon Robinson had five points and three steals, and freshman Nassir Little had six points and six rebounds.
UNC reserve forward Sterling Manley will miss his third consecutive game with a knee injury, according to coach Williams, leaving UNC thin in the front court.
Manley, who is 6-11, 235 pounds, averages 11.7 minutes per game. Foul trouble will again force UNC to go small with UNC forward Luke Maye at the center position, or deep into its bench.
“With Sterling being out, it puts a little bit more pressure on myself and Garrison to play well and not get in foul trouble, which happened a little bit against Pittsburgh,” Maye said.
4. Get Luke Maye going early
There is something about N.C. State that Maye obviously likes. Maye has scored 30 or more points, three times in his career. Two of those games came against N.C. State last year. He averaged 32 points and 14 rebounds in the two games against N.C. State.
“I was able to get some good looks, and was able to knock them down, and kind of got rolling a little bit,” Maye said. “Hopefully I can do that tomorrow.”
Maye has not scored 30 points in a game since the last time UNC played N.C. State on Feb. 10. His field goal percentage is slightly down from 48.6 percent last season to 45 percent this season. He is averaging 14.4 points per game and 9.9 rebounds.
Williams said opponents are defending Maye differently this year because of his success last year. But he isn’t worried about that.
“The other team’s defense is going to be aimed at him early in the season,” Williams said. “Late in the season things change because you go by what a guy is doing during the course of a season.”
“You don’t have to have one guy get 35 for them to still play effectively.”