Just how one-sided has the North Carolina-N.C. State basketball rivalry been for the past 10 or 15 years? Consider this: The Tar Heels have won 25 of their past 28 games against the Wolfpack, and 42 of the past 52 games in the series.
And if you think such dominance has led to apathy, think again. Roy Williams, the Tar Heels’ coach, might derive more pleasure from beating N.C. State than he does beating any other team. Since becoming UNC’s head coach in 2003, Williams is 25-3 against the Wolfpack.
None of that history will matter on Saturday night at 8 at the Smith Center, where N.C. State will arrive with one of the most electric players in college basketball. That’d be Dennis Smith, the freshman point guard. His match-up with Joel Berry, the UNC junior, will be the headliner.
Here’s a look at that one, and all the others:
UNC’s Joel Berry (15.1 ppg, 4.4 apg) vs. N.C. State’s Dennis Smith, Jr. (19.6 ppg, 6.5 apg)
Very rarely does Berry enter a game in which he’s not the best point guard on the court. But that will be the case on Saturday. It’s no knock against Berry, who’s probably one of the top five point guards in the country. He was the ACC tournament MVP last March, and would’ve been the Most Outstanding Player at the Final Four had UNC defeated Villanova in the national title game. Smith, though, is a once in a generation talent who seems to be getting better by the game. During the Wolfpack’s victory against Virginia Tech earlier this week he finished with the second triple-double in school history – and the first in an ACC game. Smith is the more talented player but Berry the far more experienced one. This should be a lot of fun, folks.
EDGE: N.C. State
UNC’s Kenny Williams (6.8 ppg, 3.8 rpg) vs. N.C. State’s Terry Henderson (16.2 ppg, 3.3 rpg)
Williams has filled in admirably in Theo Pinson’s absence and Williams has been UNC’s most improved player. He has shown a knack for making the timely 3-pointer, and he was instrumental in overtime during UNC’s victory at Clemson earlier this week. Henderson is one of the ACC’s top 3-point shooters and the team’s No. 2 scoring option after Smith. With opposing guards spending a lot of energy trying to limit Smith, Henderson has been a primary benefactor. With Pinson back, Williams’ days as a starter are likely numbered.
EDGE: N.C. State
UNC’s Justin Jackson (17.4 ppg, 4.8 rpg) vs. N.C. State’s Torin Dorn (13.7 ppg, 6.1 rpg)
The one player UNC needed to make the most strides this season was probably Jackson. And he has. He was good -- even very good, at times -- during his first two college seasons, but he has elevated his game to a higher level during his junior season. Jackson is finally confident in his outside shot, and he’s making 3-pointers consistently. Dorn is fourth in the ACC in field goal percentage, and has made 54.7 percent of his attempts from the field (the highest percentage of any guard in the ACC), but he scored 12 points combined during N.C. State’s first two conference games. The stage becomes brighter on Saturday, and Jackson so far has thrived in these moments this season.
UNC’s Isaiah Hicks (12.1 ppg, 5.3 rpg) vs. N.C. State’s Malik-Abdul Abu (12.1 ppg, 7.5 rpg)
Hicks began his senior season scoring in double figures in six of UNC’s first seven games. Since then, his production has declined while his foul trouble and lack of aggressive play on offense has returned. Roy Williams and others hoped Hicks might experience a Brice Johnson-like emergence in his final college season but it hasn’t happened that way. Abu, meanwhile, has scored in double figures in the Wolfpack’s past three games, and in five of the past six. Hicks seems to be on the decline, while Abu appears to be on the rise. Both players’ numbers are nearly identical, but more has been expected out of Hicks.
UNC’s Kennedy Meeks (12.8 ppg, 9.9 rpg) vs. N.C. State’s Omer Yurtseven (8.8 ppg, 5 rpg)
Like in the matchup between Smith and Berry, some context is needed here between Yurtseven and Meeks. Yurtseven is the more talented player, the prospect more coveted by NBA scouts. Meeks, though, has been there and done that in college – and his experience has to count for something, especially against a freshman playing in his first rivalry game. Meeks is healthy and engaged – as his 16-rebound game at Clemson showed earlier this week. Meeks already has five double-doubles, which is two more than he had all of last season.
UNC’s bench receives a significant lift with the return of Theo Pinson, who’s expected to play his first game on Saturday. Pinson is likely to enter the starting lineup at some point, which would leave Kenny Williams as one of the first players off the Tar Heels’ bench. UNC can (and sometimes does) go with an entirely new second five off the bench. The Tar Heels’ primary reserves – Nate Britt, Tony Bradley, Brandon Robinson, Seventh Woods and Luke Maye – combine to average 24.5 points and 15.7 rebounds per game. N.C. State’s bench quartet of Maverick Rown, Beejay Anya, Markell Johnson and Ted Kapita accounts for an average of 23.6 points and 13.1 rebounds per game. Add Pinson back into the mix, and the Tar Heels are deeper.
N.C. State at UNC
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: Smith Center, Chapel Hill