UNC vs. NC State: Two teams rising at right time

jgiglio@newsobserver.com, acarter@newsobserver.comJanuary 31, 2014 

  • UNC vs. N.C. State

    When: 1 p.m.

    Where: Smith Center

    TV/Radio: ESPN2/106.1-WRDU/101.5-WRAL

    Projected starting lineups

    UNC (13-7, 3-4 ACC)

    G Marcus Paige (6-1, 175)

    G Leslie McDonald (6-5, 215)

    F J.P. Tokoto (6-5, 200)

    F James Michael McAdoo (6-9, 230)

    F Kennedy Meeks (6-9, 290)

    N.C. State (14-7, 4-4 ACC)

    G Cat Barber (6-2, 170)

    G Ralston Turner (6-5, 205)

    F T.J. Warren (6-8, 215)

    F Kyle Washington (6-9, 225)

    C Jordan Vandenberg (7-1, 245)

    Who has the edge

    Cat Barber (10.8 ppg, 4.2 apg) vs. Marcus Paige (16.8 ppg, 4.4 apg)

    Since his first game against N.C. State last season, Paige has by far been UNC’s most improved player, to the point that this season he is the Tar Heels’ best player. Paige’s shooting stroke has varied during his sophomore season, but his toughness or effort have not. Barber has had moments of brilliance, particularly in the win at Tennessee, but his struggles at Duke suggest some moments get too big for the freshman. Edge: UNC

    Ralston Turner (9.8 ppg, 2.9 rpg) vs. Leslie McDonald (10.5 ppg, 2.0 rpg)

    Neither team is enamored of the 3-pointer, but these two players are counted on to provide the long ball. Both have had capable games, Turner moreso for State, but McDonald with six assists in the past two UNC wins, has been a little more versatile for the Heels. Edge: Even

    T.J. Warren (22.5 ppg, 7.3 rpg) vs. J.P. Tokoto (9.1 ppg, 5.8 rpg)

    Tokoto’s minutes (27.8 per game, up from 8.6 last season) have skyrocketed without P.J. Hairston on the team and with McDonald on the NCAA shelf for nine games. He has been a valuable jack-of-all-trades for coach Roy Williams and will give Warren fits with his defense. Still, Warren leads the ACC in scoring and the Wolfpack in rebounding and has the unique ability to make difficult shots look very easy. Edge: State

    Kyle Washington (4.4 ppg, 3.9 rpg) vs. James Michael McAdoo (14.9 ppg, 6.4 rpg)

    It’s clear by now, McAdoo won’t be another Tyler Hansbrough or Sean May, but he’s capable of big games, like the one he had against Clemson (22 points, 7 rebounds) last week, and he’s starting to find his stride. Washington’s energy, defense and mid-range jumper have been key in State’s three-game winning streak, but he’ll have to bring his game on the road. Edge: UNC

    Jordan Vandenberg (5.6 ppg, 4.9 rpg) vs. Kennedy Meeks (7.6 ppg, 6.2 rpg)

    Meeks was dynamite in UNC’s big wins over Louisville and Michigan State. He hasn’t been consistent, few freshmen are, but he has been good the past four games as his minutes have gone up. Vandenberg started the season ablaze but has settled into more of a defensive role. The setting should help young Meeks. Edge: UNC


    N.C. State wouldn’t have beaten Florida State or Georgia Tech without the contributions of guards Tyler Lewis and Desmond Lee off the bench. Freshman forward Lennard Freeman has been a plus, too, as well as freshman forward BeeJay Anya, who likely will play after hurting his knee against FSU. The Heels have been a grab-bag in the reserve department, with sophomore Brice Johnson as the best option and freshman point guard Nate Britt adding some productive minutes. Edge: State


    Williams, who’s 10-0 at home and 20-2 with UNC against State, makes no bones about his dislike for the Wolfpack. His players feed off of that as well. After an 0-3 start, the Heels seemed to have collected themselves, and the win over Clemson last Sunday was a major psychological boost. Given the Wolfpack’s problems in Chapel Hill, against Williams and otherwise, it will take a focused effort from State to end a 10-year drought. Edge: UNC

    Joe Giglio

Without getting into specifics, T.J. Warren summed up the general bleakness of N.C. State’s track record at North Carolina.

Asked about N.C. State’s last win in Chapel Hill, the N.C. State sophomore forward said: “It has been awhile.”

N.C. State’s last win in Chapel Hill? 2003.

N.C. State’s last win over Roy Williams in Chapel Hill? Never.

The Wolfpack (14-7, 4-4 ACC) makes another trip to UNC (13-7, 3-4) on Saturday afternoon with both teams on the uptick and playing better after slow starts in ACC play.

The Tar Heels have won three of four since an 0-3 ACC start. N.C. State has won three straight since a 35-point loss at Duke on Jan. 18.

For the Wolfpack to build on the confidence of its recent winning streak it will have to overcome history, both recent and not-so-recent.

The Wolfpack is 0-10 at the Smith Center since a 75-67 win over Matt Doherty’s last UNC team on Feb. 25, 2003.

The problems go back farther than Williams, who takes particular delight in beating the Wolfpack (he’s 20-2 with the Tar Heels).

Warren’s dad, Tony, played guard for N.C. State. Going back to his last season, 1978-79, the Wolfpack is 4-30 in Chapel Hill (and 22-72 all-time). The final season for Warren’s dad, by the way, coincided with Williams’ first season as an assistant coach under Dean Smith.

T.J. Warren, who leads the ACC scoring, said this N.C. State team can’t worry about the past.

“We want to go in there and get a win; that’s our goal,” Warren said. “We’re going to go in there with the mentality that we’re going to get a win.”

For this season’s version of N.C. State and UNC, Saturday’s game is a chance to take stock of where both teams are. It’s also an opportunity for both teams to move farther away from where they were.

Heels doing everything better

For just the second time, the Tar Heels lost their first three ACC games. They built some confidence with a victory against Boston College, took a step backward against Virginia but since have put together their first league winning streak.

There are some numbers that have defined UNC’s recent ascent. The Tar Heels are shooting better than before. They’re taking better advantage of second-chance scoring opportunities. Late in the victory at Georgia Tech on Wednesday night, UNC – one of the worst free throw shooting teams in the country – even shot free throws well.

Individually, James Michael McAdoo, the junior forward, has been at his best. He’s shooting 60 percent in UNC’s past five games, and he has complemented his play with emotional leadership that UNC had been lacking.

“I think the biggest thing has probably just been on both ends of the floor five guys playing together,” McAdoo said, explaining UNC’s improvement since an 0-3 start. “And really buying into everything coach is saying, but also having each other’s backs out there on the defensive end and really just holding each other accountable.

To Williams, though, his team’s improved play can be traced to one thing.

“I feel like I should (say) something else, but I think it’s just that we’ve played with a greater sense of urgency,” he said. “I really do.”

Williams later listed the conference games the Tar Heels have lost. Wake Forest played harder, he said. And so did Miami. And Virginia. In the other defeat, at Syracuse, UNC scored just 45 points – its lowest total since a 45-44 victory against N.C. State at Reynolds Coliseum in 1997.

Before this season, UNC’s 1996-97 team was the only one in school history to start 0-3 in the ACC. UNC’s first conference victory that season came at the Smith Center against N.C. State. It was a victory that ignited a turnaround, and UNC went to the Final Four.

It’s impossible to predict what a victory Saturday against the Wolfpack might do for the Tar Heels, but it’s easier to define the potential significance. UNC would be .500 in the ACC for the first time this season, and under Williams it would still be undefeated at home against N.C. State.

“I always have appreciated the rivalry,” Williams said. “I’ve enjoyed it. But I think it is a big rivalry. It probably means more to me than the typical North Carolina fan. It’s just because of the closeness and some buddies that were North Carolina State students when I was in school here. It was a personal thing.

“But again, if that had any effect on tomorrow’s game, I would be even more appreciative of (UNC’s dominance).”

Yet another victory against the Wolfpack might carry even more significance for the Tar Heels, even if some of their fans – and players – don’t have the same appreciation as Williams for the rivalry.

“It’s just another basketball game – just like Boston College, Virginia Tech, UAB,” McAdoo said. “We want to beat them just as bad as they want to beat us.”

Pack peaking at right time

The first ACC game against UNC has always been a mile-marker for N.C. State. This trip is no different for the Wolfpack, which moved up to No. 57 in the RPI after its best win of the season (over No. 32 Florida State on Wednesday).

N.C. State’s confidence has grown with each ACC win. The FSU win evened the Pack’s ACC record at 4-4. The confidence from the past three wins has helped put a pair of earlier 30-point losses, to Virginia and Duke, in the rearview mirror.

“A little bit, but you have to definitely remember that they are there because that could easily happen any game in this league,” freshman forward Kyle Washington said.

Washington said the Pack learned from the Virginia and Duke losses.

“If we didn’t, then we’d have a problem,” Washington said.

Third-year coach Mark Gottfried has been particularly pleased with his team’s resilience and spirit. The variety of contributions, from a variety of sources, during the winning streak also has been a key.

Guard Tyler Lewis, who has 10 assists and one turnover in the past two games, has been important, especially after the Pack turned the ball over 21 times at Duke.

Guard Ralston Turner’s jumper – he has eight 3-pointers the past three games – has helped open some space for Warren and Desmond Lee.

Washington has provided a spark with his mid-range game and defense.

“It has been a group effort,” said senior forward Jordan Vandenberg, who had a key block in overtime against Georgia Tech.

To Gottfried, the most important part has been his young team has gotten better since the start of ACC play. That’s what he wanted to see and hopes to continue to see.

“We’ve got to play the way we’ve been playing,” Gottfried said.

Giglio: 919-829-8938

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