CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- It’s been well documented that North Carolina coach Roy Williams hates to lose to NC State. But it’s the way the Tar Heels lost to their just-up-Interstate-40 rival last month that could make Saturday’s rematch even more heated.
“There’s no question I hate to lose against anybody, but especially somebody that just -- they had us by 28,’’ Williams said. “Last game, everybody said ‘It was a great comeback. But I don’t care about that, they had us by 28.”
Indeed, the Wolfpack led by as many as the aforementioned 28 points on Jan. 26 before UNC made a late push to close to within five; State's win snapped a 13-game skid against the Tar Heels.
Saturday at the Smith Center, State will by trying for its first regular-season sweep of UNC since the 2002-03 season something Wolfpack coach Mark Gottfried reminded his team about via dry-erase board earlier this week.
“It was a long time ago,” State point guard Lorenzo Brown told The News & Observer. “Hopefully we can do it again on Saturday.”
With roughly two weeks to go in the regular season, there will be plenty on the line in this one, from momentum to seeding ramifications (State, UNC and Virginia are all knotted in third place at 8-5 in the conference standings, and only the top four seeds earn a first-day bye in the ACC tournament).
And, of course, there's pride.
“It’s a big-time rivalry within the state of North Carolina,’’ said UNC wing Reggie Bullock, who grew up in Kinston, N.C. “We lost to them to first time, so we definitely have to get our face back, and get out there and play harder.”
A few things to watch during the game, which tips off Saturday at the Smith Center at 4 p.m. ET:
BIGGER VS. SMALLER
NC State has gone bigger with its lineup, inserting 6-foot-8 freshman T.J. Warren to play alongside 6-8 Richard Howell and 6-9 C.J. Leslie in a move that has improved the Wolfpack’s rebounding. Gottfried said Friday he plans to stay with that frontline.
UNC, meanwhile, has gone smaller with its opening five, inserting 6-5 P.J. Hairston instead of 6-9 Desmond Hubert; the four-guard lineup has given the Tar Heels more scoring and confidence, and Williams said he'll stay with his newest first five, as well.
“We’ll still go with that same lineup tomorrow, but I really foresee the fact that we’ll play two big guys together a bit more,” Williams said Friday.
“... If they have two big inside players who take the ball to the basket against big guys, they’re really going to take the ball to the basket against little guys. So it really is something we’re concerned about.”
Williams said UNC will start out with Hairston defending Leslie, 6-9 James Michael McAdoo on Howell and 6-7 Bullock on Warren.
UNC may also have the option of inserting 6-9 wide-body reserve Joel James, who missed the last three games because of a concussion. James practiced Thursday and Friday, Williams said, “so we’ll just have to see after practice today whether he has his conditioning back enough to play in the game. He was out for 10 days or something like that, so it’s going to take him a little while.”
Williams called Brown, NC State’s starting point guard, “a load,’’ and he certainly was last month, when he ran seemingly unchecked through UNC’s defense and finished with 20 points and 11 assists.
Gottfried said earlier this week that Brown is back to about 90 percent after missing two games because of a sprained left ankle; the junior has averaged 13 points and 6.6 points in the three games since he returned.
Williams said he thinks State is a better team because of the adversity it faced, playing without its star ball handler.
“Yeah, they lost a couple or something like that [actually, the two games when Brown was sidelined], but they bounced back, they played better, gave Lorenzo a little break there, and it looks to me like he’s back to 100 percent,’’ Williams said. "It gave them a little more depth, because they brought [freshman point guard] Tyler Lewis in and got more confidence in him, and I think T.J. just gives them another scoring option -- and a scoring option from anywhere on the court.”
UNC's sophomore forward ended up with with 13 points and 11 rebounds during the Tar Heels' loss at State, but played only 25 minutes after picking up two quick fouls. He’ll have to play both smart and aggressively against Howell, who leads the ACC in rebounding (10.9 per game) and is averaging a double-double (13 points).
In addition, the Tar Heels would like to see McAdoo's offensive numbers look more like the ones he recorded at Georgia Tech on Tuesday (20 points) than his previous three games (an average of 8.0).