CHAPEL HILL — Three North Carolina-related things to consider on the morning after the Tar Heels’ 74-55 victory over N.C. State on Thursday night:
The gap between these longtime rivals is still significant. After the disastrous Sidney Lowe era and the promising start under first-year coach Mark Gottfried, it appeared that maybe, possibly, the Wolfpack had closed some of the distance. And yes, last night was but one game.
Still, it showed that UNC is still far ahead. For the Tar Heels, that’s both good and bad. The good is obvious enough. The bad, though, is that competition breeds success. Years and years – and years – ago, part of the reason why North Carolina became a national power was because Everett Case’s dominant N.C. State teams in the early years of the ACC forced the Tar Heels to raise their game. And the rivalry went back and forth through the 1950s, '60s, '70s and '80s. Since, of course, it has grown significantly one-sided.
No, the gap between UNC and State isn’t as wide as it was during the Les Robinson years, or when Javi Gonzalez struggled to bring the ball up the court against Ty Lawson just a few years ago. But it’s still wide and doesn’t appear to be shrinking any time soon.
UNC can be very good when it wants. We saw the “good” Tar Heels on Thursday night. They came out focused and energized and avoided mental lapses that have plagued them at times this season. If it looked as if the Tar Heels were trying to send State a message, that’s because they were.
Said Harrison Barnes: “Well, it’s not Carolina-Duke, but we definitely wanted to go out there and show them that this is our court and this is what we do.”
Barnes often plays with a calm, stoic demeanor, but we’ve seen him let loose his emotion at times in the past couple of games. He showed some emotion after that one-handed follow dunk in the first half, and not only did that energize the crowd, but it also seemed to have the same effect on his teammates.
As Roy Williams said earlier this season, these Heels aren’t a naturally intense bunch. But he also said it’s possible for a team to learn how to play with an edge as a season progresses. Maybe what we saw in the second half against Virginia Tech, and last night, was UNC learning how to play with such an edge.
The Tar Heels look like they’ll be OK without Dexter Strickland. One game isn’t exactly a large sample size, but if you’re a UNC fan you have to like how the team compensated for the loss of Strickland. His immediate replacement, Reggie Bullock, stepped in and played well.
Outside of a few errant shots, Bullock’s transition into the starting lineup was a smooth one. He finished with 11 points, five rebounds and three assists. In a somewhat surprising move, Williams used his bench on Thursday night as much as he had in any game this season.
Five reserves played at least five minutes, and Desmond Hubert played 13 minutes. It’s concerning that P.J. Hairston continues to struggle with his shot – he was 0-for-5 from 3-point range against N.C. State – but UNC still appeared to be surprisingly deep on Thursday night.
Freshman point guard Stilman White played just five minutes, but they allowed Kendall Marshall some valuable time to rest. Marshall played 34 minutes.