How will North Carolina sophomore forward James Michael McAdoo fare inside against N.C. State senior Richard Howell? ROBERT WILLETT
CHAPEL HILL — And welcome to game day, folks. North Carolina and N.C. State will tip off at the Smith Center at 4 p.m.
A preview, including a look at who has the edge:
UNC (18-8, 8-5 ACC) vs. N.C. State (19-7, 8-5)
When: 4 p.m.
Where: Smith Center
MATCHUPS – WHO HAS THE EDGE
Point guard: Marcus Paige vs. Lorenzo Brown
There were times in the first game between these teams when Paige looked like he wanted no part of playing against Brown, who ignited the Wolfpack’s dominant first half before finishing with 20 points and 11 assists. Paige has grown up a bit since that game, and has become more of a scoring threat and a more confident passer. He’ll be better prepared for the challenge he’ll face today but Brown is still Brown: the ACC’s best point guard who’s capable of humbling his defender on every possession.
Shooting guard: Dexter Strickland vs. Scott Wood
Strickland’s inflammatory preseason comments about N.C. State are now a distant memory. And if he keeps playing well, so too will be the struggles he endured for much of the season. Strickland has been at his slashing, penetrating best since UNC last week began using a four-guard starting lineup. As dangerous of a shooter as Wood is, he’s never played well in the Smith Center, where he’s just 4-for-17 on 3-pointers during the past three seasons.
Small forward: Reggie Bullock vs. T.J. Warren
Warren is just a freshman but he didn’t play like it earlier this week, when he justified his new role as a starter by scoring a career-high 31 points in the Pack’s victory against Florida State. Warren is a load down low but he can also shoot from the outside. For a bigger guy, he matches up well with Bullock, who has been somewhat quiet of late, and hasn’t eclipsed 15 points in his past four games. He continues to be among UNC’s best defensive players, though, and his rebounding has become even more important since the Tar Heels have gone small.
Power forward: P.J. Hairston vs. C.J. Leslie
The 6-foot-5 Hairston has become UNC’s power forward – in name only – in its new starting lineup, but he’s proven that he can handle going against bigger, stronger opponents. And whatever defensive liabilities Hairston presents, he more than makes up with his potential on offense. But keeping Leslie in check will be difficult. The Heels didn’t have an answer for him in Raleigh, where he scored 17 points and had 10 rebounds. He’s scored at least 16 points in six of the Wolfpack’s past seven games.
Center: James Michael McAdoo vs. Richard Howell
McAdoo is as talented as any player in the ACC but he remains a finesse player in the body of a big man. He’s at his best offensively when he can avoid contact. Defensively, he’s more suited to disturbing passing lanes and getting steals than muscling people out of the paint. Howell is the opposite – a true post player who’s at his best outfighting opponents for rebounds, and creating second-chance opportunities. McAdoo is the more refined player, but Howell is a fierce competitor who often imposes his will.
Since going small, UNC has shortened its bench considerably. Only one of the Tar Heels’ reserves – Leslie McDonald – came off the bench to play double-digit minutes earlier this week in UNC’s victory at Georgia Tech. Compare that to the first time these teams played on Jan. 26, when five of UNC’s bench players played at least 10 minutes. N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried has kept his rotation tight all season but his bench his better than it was just weeks ago. For one, freshman point guard Tyler Lewis has proven himself as a worthy backup to Brown. Second, Gottfried can now bring talented freshman Rodney Purvis off the bench. He has struggled of late but there’s a reason he started for much of the season, too.
Edge: N.C. State
It has been a long time since N.C. State swept the season series against UNC. The Wolfpack hasn’t done that since the 2002-03 season, and overall they’ve done it just three times since the David Thompson-led glory years of the mid-1970s.
A Wolfpack victory today would further legitimize what Gottfried is trying to build in Raleigh, and it’d bring N.C. State one step closer back to where it used to be, decades ago.
Rivalry aside, though, UNC simply needs this more. Sure, a victory today would bring the world back into order for Williams and his team, which isn’t accustomed to losing against N.C. State. But more than that a victory would go a ways towards strengthening the Tar Heels’ mediocre NCAA tournament resume.
THREE KEYS FOR UNC:
1. Marcus Paige and Dexter Strickland have to play well. Neither did during the game in Raleigh and, as a result, the offense stalled for long stretches. Both players have been better since UNC went small – and Strickland has been significantly better. That trend needs to continue today.
2. Shoot well from the perimeter. The Tar Heels have conceded that they won’t be all that balanced with a small lineup. UNC isn’t as reliant anymore on inside scoring, but it’s extremely reliant on generating offense on the perimeter. If the Tar Heels don’t shoot well from the outside, it’s difficult to see them winning.
3. Run when possible and limit N.C. State’s transition opportunities. Lorenzo Brown is one of the best point guards in the country in transition. That was especially clear the first time these teams played. The Heels can ill afford to let Brown to do that again. Conversely, UNC needs to create some transition opportunities for itself.
N.C. State has been the better shooting team, and by a pretty wide margin. The Wolfpack has also done a much better job this season of getting to the free throw line. The teams are nearly even in turnover rate, while UNC has the edge in creating second-chance opportunities through offensive rebounding (though, of course, the Heels are a different team since going small).
Won’t be long now …