Heels-Pack rivalry picks up steam

Staff WriterJanuary 24, 2012 

N.C. State's C.J. Leslie, right, and UNC's John Henson fight for a rebound.

ETHAN HYMAN — ehyman@newsobserver.com

It's been a long time since a regular-season basketball game between North Carolina and N.C. State felt as special as the one coming up Thursday in Chapel Hill.

Sure, the ACC is down this season. And sure, UNC was beaten by 33 points at Florida State and the Wolfpack got whipped soundly by Georgia Tech in Raleigh.

But when the Wolfpack (15-5, 4-1) and the Tar Heels (16-3, 3-1) meet Thursday at 7 p.m. at the Smith Center, there'll be an electricity factor that rarely has surfaced during recent seasons.

In Herb Sendek's final season at N.C. State (2005-06), both teams were nationally ranked for the two regular-season games. But Sendek's habit of downplaying the rivalry element had a way of carrying over to his players at times.

That being the case, it wasn't totally surprising UNC won both 2005-06 games with relative ease - 82-69 in Chapel Hill and a 95-71 romp in Raleigh that eroded support for Sendek to the extent that many fans lost hope in his ability to restore the program to genuine national prominence.

Even when Sidney Lowe engineered a stunning upset over third-ranked UNC in his first season as the Pack's coach, it was quickly offset by a 19-point UNC win in the second game and then a nine-point UNC win in the ACC title game in Tampa, Fla.

Maybe it's the grit that Mark Gottfried has quickly instilled in his first N.C. State team, or maybe it's the dash of unpredictability in UNC.

There's little doubt that Gottfried has changed the competitive personality of the Wolfpack.

With Tracy Smith out of eligibility and Ryan Harrow's decision to transfer to Kentucky, N.C. State's talent level actually is below that of last season's team, which finished 15-16, 5-11 in the ACC. But thanks to much better play by C.J. Williams in an expanded role and Richard Howell's dramatically improved conditioning, Gottfried and his staff thus far have found a way to overcome depth problems and C.J. Leslie's tendency to develop muscle cramps in the second halves of important games.

What we've seen is a tougher, more confident and far more consistent team with Gottfried in charge.

"We have a bond on this team that we've never had before," N.C. State junior forward DeShawn Painter said after Sunday's win at Miami.

Come Thursday, North Carolina will add to the intrigue simply because it will be the Tar Heels' first full game without Dexter Strickland, who is out for the season as the result of a knee injury.

Through 19 games, there wasn't an inordinate degree of pressure on any of UNC's players. Suddenly, that situation has changed for Reggie Bullock and P.J. Hairston, who are likely to inherit the 24 minutes that Strickland averaged.

But there's also going to be additional pressure on floor leader Kendall Marshall to play more minutes without collecting more fouls, and there's going to be more pressure on the entire perimeter to play better defense.

In the past, Roy Williams' teams have dealt well with crisis situations. When guard Larry Drew II quit last season's team in midseason, the Tar Heels actually improved. The 2008-09 NCAA championship team overcame playmaker Ty Lawson's late-season injuries.

But each team is different. Strickland didn't provide a lot of scoring (7.5 per game), but he did provide a lot of glue and leadership. Few teams have more talent than North Carolina, but Strickland won't be easily replaced.

There simply are a lot of balls in the air on both sides of the rivalry. That's as it should be when North Carolina and N.C. State play. It's a rich series that's been uninspiring for too long.

Tudor: 919-829-8946

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