Joel Berry (12.6 ppg, 4.4 apg) vs. Cat Barber (22.5 ppg, 4.9 apg)
Few players in the nation have been as impressive statistically as Cat Barber, the N.C. State junior. The Wolfpack, amid injuries and attrition, are in the midst of a difficult season but imagine where the team would be without Barber, who has been something of an iron man with his ability to play extended minutes at a high level. Joel Berry has made a significant jump from his sophomore season – his improved health is a big reason why – and he has been one of UNC’s most clutch players. Most important, he has successfully transitioned into his role as UNC’s starting point guard. Barber, though, is N.C. State’s most important player and the Wolfpack’s success is usually attributable to him.
Edge: N.C. State
Marcus Paige (15.1 ppg, 4.1 apg) vs. Maverick Rowan (13.5 ppg, 3.6 rpg)
Maverick Rowan scored a season-high 22 points and made three 3-pointers in N.C. State’s loss against Florida State Wednesday and he has played well, overall, during his freshman season. Paige, though, is one of the most seasoned, and skilled, players in the country. He has led UNC in scoring the past two seasons. This season he has more help than he’s ever had, which frees him up on the offensive end and decreases the pressure that surrounded him the past two seasons. Teams are trying to take away Paige’s outside shooting, but he is more adept this season – now that he’s healthy – at penetrating and finishing plays at the rim. And, oh yes, Paige has had some memorable games against N.C. State, too.
Justin Jackson (12.9 ppg, 3.9 rpg) vs. Caleb Martin (11.6 ppg, 4.9 rpg)
Here’s a scary thought for UNC’s upcoming opponents, including N.C. State on Saturday: The Tar Heels have been the nation’s best offensive team and yet it still seems that Justin Jackson hasn’t yet gotten it going. It’s probably only a matter of time before Jackson does and his 16 points at Syracuse last weekend could be a sign that his emergence comes sooner rather than later. Those 16 points were the most he’d scored since November. Caleb Martin started the season well but has struggled to make shots (2-for-16 from behind the 3-point line in N.C. State’s past two games) of late. That’s a trend that has to end if the Wolfpack is to have a chance on Saturday.
Brice Johnson (16.7 ppg, 10.2 rpg) vs. Abdul-Malik Abu (11.6 ppg, 8.3 rpg)
Brice Johnson has set a career-high in scoring three times this season, though after his 39-point, 23-rebound performance at Florida State it would be difficult for him to set a new career-high for a fourth time. An important player for UNC the past two seasons, he has elevated his play and has developed into a potential ACC Player of the Year candidate. Abdul-Malik Abu, who has finished with a double-double (points and rebounds) in six of N.C. State’s past eight games, is coming off a career-high 21 points on Wednesday against Florida State. He has lacked consistency, though.
Kennedy Meeks (11.9 ppg, 6.9) vs. BeeJay Anya (4.9 ppg, 5.5 rpg)
After a seven-game absence while recovering from a knee injury, Kennedy Meeks came off the bench in UNC’s victory at Syracuse Jan. 9 and finished with eight points and two rebounds in 14 minutes. Depending on how Meeks fared in practice on Friday, he could re-enter the starting lineup on Saturday. Meeks said after the Syracuse game that he hoped to be at full strength by the N.C. State game. BeeJay Anya leads the ACC in blocked shots and he’ll no doubt alter his share on Saturday, but he hasn’t added much offensively and has scored 12 points in N.C. State’s past five games.
UNC and N.C. State differ in a lot of ways but perhaps no more than in their numbers. Attrition took its toll before the start of the season and the Wolfpack clearly misses the injured Terry Henderson. As it is, N.C. State has been left with a seven-man rotation. Cody Martin and Lennard Freeman are the Wolfpack’s only regular reserves. It’s the opposite situation at UNC and as Gottfried said earlier this week, the Tar Heels’ reserves might form a team that could finish in the middle of the ACC. Isaiah Hicks, UNC’s junior forward, has been one of the best sixth men in the country. Theo Pinson is a valuable wing player that can play a variety of roles. Guard Nate Britt and forward Joel James, if he comes off the bench after starting in place of Meeks, are valued contributors, as well. UNC can go 10 or 11 players deep if the circumstances call for it.
N.C. State at No. 5 North Carolina
Where: Smith Center, Chapel Hill