UNC made nothing easy for N.C. State forward C.J. Leslie on Saturday. With Leslie on the court, UNC outscored the Wolfpack by 27 points. ROBERT WILLETT
CHAPEL HILL — Apologies for the late “look back,” folks, but I did have some thoughts we had yet to discuss here about North Carolina’s 76-65 victory against N.C. State on Saturday.
So without further delay …
Three things to take away from North Carolina’s victory:
1. The Tar Heels and Wolfpack are headed in different directions. That was basically the crux of what I wrote postgame, which you can read right here. This hasn’t been a great year for UNC. That’s obvious enough. Yet for all the doom and gloom talk, and the focus on the Tar Heels’ struggles, they find themselves one game ahead of N.C. State in the ACC standings with less than two weeks remaining in the regular season. Remember that N.C. State entered the season amid extraordinary expectations, yet the Wolfpack still seems to be dealing with problems that surfaced in November. Since going to a small lineup, meanwhile, UNC seems to have solved a lot of its problems.
2. UNC is now pretty much a lock for the NCAA tournament.
At 9-5 in the ACC, with a top-25 ranking in the RPI, the Tar Heels’ place in the NCAA tournament seems secure. Some strange things would have to happen for the Heels not to make it at this point. They’d probably have to lose the remainder of their games, and then fall victim to some more bad luck (like a several mid-majors winning conference tournaments they aren’t expected to win). It’s striking how quickly the direction of the Tar Heels’ season has changed. After that 26-point loss at Miami, I wrote a 1,500-word story about all that’s gone wrong for UNC this season. Since that game, though, just about everything has gone right. Even the loss at Duke brought about some confidence, given how well the Heels played in their first game going small.
3. If N.C. State can’t exploit UNC’s smaller lineup, then who can?
C.J. Leslie, the Wolfpack junior, was a non-factor on Saturday. Well, that’s not entirely true. He was a detriment to his own team, and finished with six points and six turnovers. Entering the game, there was a lot of talk about how much of a mismatch it might be to have P.J. Hairston, the Heels’ 6-foot-5 sophomore guard, guard Leslie in the post. But once again, Hairston did just fine defensively. Richard Howell, the senior forward, played well for N.C. State, and finished with 13 points and 17 rebounds. Still, UNC wasn’t at all overwhelmed by the Pack’s size and skill up front. If N.C. State couldn’t exploit UNC on the interior, it makes you wonder who can.
UNC shot better, did a better job of getting to the free throw line and, the big one, did a much better job taking care of the ball. N.C. State created more second-chance opportunities but, problem was, the Wolfpack did nothing with them.
UNC PLAYER OF THE GAME
Come on down, Reggie Bullock. Bullock might have had his best overall game of the season, with 22 points and 13 rebounds.