North Carolina is 4-0 in the ACC for the first time ever under coach Roy Williams. N.C. State is 0-4 in the ACC for the first time since the 1996-97 season.
The Tar Heels and Wolfpack meet on Saturday at the Smith Center where, in case you forgot, N.C. State did leave with a 58-46 victory last season. But that seems like an eternity ago.
And it seems, too, that the gap between these teams is as wide as it has been in years. But is it?
Several statistics suggest it might be. And not just ones concerning points and rebounds and offensive and defensive efficiency.
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But number of players, too. N.C. State has eight healthy scholarship players. UNC, meanwhile, used a nine-player rotation during its 84-73 victory at Syracuse – and the Tar Heels can go 10 or 11 players deep, if necessary.
So personnel, or in the Wolfpack’s case a lack of it, is one glaring difference. Attrition, like the loss of Trevor Lacey, and injuries, like the one Terry Henderson sustained at the start of the season, have limited the Wolfpack. And in a strange way, injuries have benefited the Tar Heels.
The one senior guard Marcus Paige endured at the start of the season allowed more playing time and opportunities for some of his teammates. Joel Berry, the sophomore guard, gained confidence during those first six games without Paige.
The injury that forced junior forward Kennedy Meeks to miss seven games, meanwhile, allowed Brice Johnson and Isaiah Hicks a chance to flourish. Now, with Meeks back, the Tar Heels’ frontcourt is better than it was before he began to sit out with a knee injury.
N.C. State’s lack of personnel has left the Wolfpack especially reliant on Cat Barber, the junior guard. He has played every minute possible in seven games this season and, generally, as Barber goes so too does the Wolfpack. It can’t afford an off night from him.
As for the Tar Heels, they picked apart Syracuse’s zone defense during the second half last Saturday. And UNC did it all with a minimal scoring contribution from Paige, who finished with three points.
If N.C. State is a one-man band then UNC is the exact opposite: a full symphony with an array of contributors, each one capable of stealing the show on any given night.
“It just shows you the depth and balance we have,” Paige said after he scored three of UNC’s 84 points at Syracuse. “The past couple of years we kind of struggled to be an elite offensive team, and this year – with the emergence of ours sophomores and Isaiah (Hicks) playing a bigger role, Brice (Johnson) being a dominant force on the inside – we have an elite offense.
“So if I struggle we still have guys that can step up. On any given night it can be someone else.”
Most of those given nights have ended with UNC scoring somewhere in the 80s. Or 90s. Or with it scoring 106 points, like it did during a recent 106-90 victory at Florida State.
And that represents another difference between the Tar Heels and Wolfpack: UNC excels offensively, so much that this team might just become the best offensive team of Williams’ tenure.
UNC’s benchmark for offensive excellence under Williams is the 2009 national championship team, which led the nation with an adjusted offensive efficiency rating of 122.4, according to kenpom.com.
Williams’ current team leads the nation in offensive efficiency with the same exact rating – 122.4. The Tar Heels have scored at least 80 points in 13 consecutive games.
N.C. State, meanwhile, has failed to score at least 80 points in nine consecutive games. The Wolfpack finished with 78 on Wednesday night against Florida State – enough points to win, N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried said earlier – in a seven-point loss.
Which presents another difference between the teams: defense. UNC hasn’t been a great defensive team. The Tar Heels, as they often have under Williams – and even long before him – have continued to struggle defensively on the perimeter, where opponents have made 38.4 percent of their 3s.
Even so, UNC ranks fifth in the ACC in defensive efficiency, according to kenpom.com, while N.C. State is 10th. And in conference play, the Wolfpack has been even more porous than UNC against the 3, and in four games is allowing ACC opponents to make 42.6 of their 3-point attempts.
The numbers – ones that describe offensive and defensive excellence, ones that describe, simply, a team’s depth – suggest victory for UNC on Saturday. And yet what N.C. State did at the Smith Center last year, when it held UNC to its fewest points ever in the Smith Center, couldn’t have been projected.
Since their meeting last February, though, UNC and N.C. State have experienced contrasting journeys on their way back to the same intersection where they’ll find themselves this weekend.