N.C. State already has three wins over ranked teams this season, including a pair of wins over the No. 2 team (Arizona, Duke).
Three ways for the Wolfpack (14-7, 4-4 ACC) to beat the 10th-ranked Tar Heels (16-5, 5-3 ACC) for only the second time in 15 years in Chapel Hill:
1) Go big
Carolina’s roster — with a lead guard (Joel Berry) as the primary scorer — has a similar structure to what N.C. State had with Cat Barber, in 2016, and Dennis Smith, in 2017.
N.C. State’s roster — with three veteran bigs — is structured more like one of Carolina’s recent teams with a deeper, experienced frontcourt.
The Tar Heels do have size, and forward Luke Maye is a capable scorer and rebounder, but their bigs are young and they’re trying to define their roles. N.C. State, with Omer Yurtseven (16.6 points per conference game) can make some hay inside.
Abdul-Malik Abu and Lennard Freeman have not been as productive in ACC play but are capable of putting up big numbers. UNC would counter either Abu or Freeman with wing Theo Pinson, which would be a favorable matchup on offense for State.
But first-year coach Kevin Keatts has mostly only used one forward at a time, with wing Torin Dorn being used as a “stretch 4.” Keatts might want to go big against the Tar Heels. State’s trio of bigs combined for 39 points in the home upset of Duke on Jan. 6.
Using two forwards would also help N.C. State on the glass. Despite the smaller lineup, the Tar Heels are the top rebounding team in the country.
But the Heels can be taken advantage of on the glass. Virginia Tech out-rebounded UNC (36-35) on Monday, so did Notre Dame (45-37) on Jan. 13. The Heels lost to the Hokies and escaped from South Bend, Ind. with a 1-point win.
N.C. State’s offensive rebounds per game (13.48) ranks right behind UNC’s (13.57) in the top 20 in the country.
2) Turn UNC over
Normally, you don’t try to “run with Roy” but the Tar Heels have been sloppy, at times, with the ball this season. They turned the ball over 13 times in Monday’s loss at Virginia Tech and were out-scored 11-4 on the fastbreak.
Virginia (Virginia!) had an 8-0 advantage in fastbreak points in a 61-49 home win over UNC on Jan. 6. The Heels turned the ball over a season-high 19 times against the Wahoos.
N.C. State is not in UVA’s class on defense (who is?) but the Wolfpack’s pressing style has produced eight steals per game (which ranks No. 36 in the country) and has forced 15.5 turnovers per game (No. 49 in the country).
Guards Markell Johnson and Lavar Batts are both above-average on-the-ball defenders and could give UNC some trouble on the press or in a halfcourt set.
3) Withstand the initial push
UNC’s going to breathe fire early. Coming off of a loss, and with some extra time to prepare — and the added element of the State-Carolina rivalry — the Heels are going to be ready to go.
It isn’t a question of if they’re going to make an early run but how the Wolfpack will react to it. In last year’s disastrous loss in Chapel Hill, UNC jumped out to a 21-4 lead in the first 7 minutes and N.C. State never responded.
The Wolfpack lost five ACC games by 24 points or more last season (including both to UNC). Keatts has only had one (88-58 at Notre Dame) game really get away from him.
Taking the early heat, especially if Yurtseven finds a quick whistle, will be imperative for the Wolfpack.
Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio