North Carolina senior Dexter Strickland raised some eyebrows (and more than a few NC State fans’ hackles) last October when, asked about the Wolfpack being picked by both the coaches and media to win the league, he responded with some early bulletin board material.
"They talk those guys up every single year and we beat them every single year," Strickland told Jeff Goodman of CBSSports.com. "They are the least of our worries. Beat us one year and then they can talk smack. Until then, you can't put them in the mix."
Back then, it seemed like a rather audacious thing to say, considering the Wolfpack were returning four of five starters while the Tar Heels had lost four-fifths of their starting group. And as little as two weeks ago, the statements seemed even more dubious, as the Wolfpack faithful stormed the court after toppling top-ranked Duke to win their 10th straight game while the struggling Tar Heels took the floor in Tallahassee, desperate not to fall to 0-3 in the ACC.
But a funny thing has happened over the past 15 days.
UNC, long fallen out of the top 25, has won three in a row.
No. 18 NC State has lost two of three -- including a mid-week shocker at Wake Forest.
All of a sudden, Strickland’s words seem a bit prophetic: State (15-4, 4-2 ACC) does need to beat rival UNC to stay in the league’s top early mix -- something it hasn’t managed in 13 tries, dating back to 2007. A win by the Tar Heels (13-5, 3-2), meanwhile, would not only keep it near the top of the conference cluster, but bolster the confidence and learning curve of a team still trying to figure out and reach its potential.
“I probably wish he hadn’t done it,” Williams said about Strickland’s preseason comments, “but do you think it’s going to make North Carolina-North Carolina State any bigger [of a] game? I think it has zero effect on the game. … I think it just gives people something to talk about.”
And what's a rivalry without a little talk?
According to ESPN Stats & Information, this will mark only the sixth time since the AP poll began in 1948-49 that an unranked North Carolina team will play a ranked NC State squad.
ESPN’s Jay Bilas offered up his preview of the game earlier Friday. But here are a few more things to watch during Saturday's 7 p.m. ET tipoff at PNC Arena:
THE POINT GUARDS
Asked earlier this month which ballhandler he was looking most forward to playing against, UNC freshman Marcus Paige was quick to mention NC State’s Lorenzo Brown, pointing to the 6-foot-5 junior as the best point guard in the league.
And Brown -- who likely will also be guarded by Strickland, too -- has been impressive, leading the league in assists (6.9 per game), while also averaging 12.8 points.
“Lorenzo Brown’s playing about as well as any point guard around,’’ Williams said, adding that Brown is shooting the ball better, making better decisions, and playing better defense than even last season, when he was pretty darn good.
Paige (6.7 ppg, 4.4 apg), meanwhile, has grown more and more comfortable in his starting role, but he hasn’t yet faced an atmosphere quite like the one coming at PNC Arena. He said he was looking forward to it.
“Marcus is a great player, he was a five-star recruit coming out of high school so he’s played against some big-time talent. I know he’s ready to play in a game like this,’’ UNC junior wing Reggie Bullock said.
Williams has often said that the toughest teams to prepare for are the ones with a balanced offense. And NC State, which boasts the third best shooting percentage in the nation and five players averaging double figures, certainly has that.
Along with Brown, “Richard Howell is a man on the backboards,’’ Williams said. “C.J. [Leslie] just dominates some games, [Scott] Wood can shoot the dickens out of it, Rodney Purvis gives another element of speed on the break and then T.J. Warren off the bench is shooting over 62 percent.
“It’s really something that they have six guys that are effective offensively.”
And really quite a challenge to guard.
“If we want to win this game, we’ve got to play defense for 40 minutes,’’ said Bullock, adding that the better defensive team will probably come out on top.
A North Carolina native who grew up around (and has now played multiple games in) the rivalry, Bullock knows what to expect: hungry fans, a raucous atmosphere, a hard-nosed game.
His goal as a team leader: to help prepare the younger guys for what’s to come, and push everyone to play consistently Saturday.
“NC State, they’re a great team, they’ve got great players,’’ Bullock said. “And I know they’re going to come out tomorrow ready to play even hungrier than they played in the Wake Forest game. We’ve just got to be ready.”
Bullock’s defense was key last season to helping hold Wood to 6-for-23 shooting over three games. But Bullock's offense will also be key this time around; he’s averaging 17.2 ppg in ACC play.