CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- At 15-5, NC State is off to its best start in six years. At 4-1 in the ACC, it entered this week tied atop the conference standings with Duke and Florida State, with North Carolina (16-3, 3-1) just behind.
It boasts a new coach. And five starters averaging double figures.
So, does that add new relevance to tonight’s rivalry game, when the Wolfpack play No. 8 UNC at the Smith Center?
“They've been relevant to me all the time,’’ said UNC coach Roy Williams, whose Tar Heels have won 10 in a row against the Wolfpack.
But, he conceded: “I think [their record] does add more to it than if they were 1-4 and we were 19-0. I think it's a very legitimate thing. They've played well.”
So well, Tar Heels point guard Kendall Marshall said, that "right now it seems like we're the underdogs. They're tied for first in the ACC and we're not."
A few things (among many) to watch tonight:
The Kinston, N.C., native will make his first start for UNC, in place of shooting guard Dexter Strickland, who is out for the rest of the season with a torn ACL in his right knee.
The sophomore said he’s excited about his new spot in the opening five, but "I didn't want it to happen like this, and I know it's a big loss for our team, but I’ve just got to go out there and perform for me and Strick. He was my partner at the 2-guard position, so I just have to go out there and play my game and do the things I knew he would do when he was out there."
Bullock is not the same defender as Strickland, but at 6-foot-7, he adds more size and outside shooting ability.
“Everybody’s got to raise their level of play, and everybody’s got to raise their level of consistency of play and be able to make some changes to make up for some of the things we lose from Dexter,” Williams said.
WOOD AT THE LINE
NC State junior Scott Wood is a perfect 48-for-48 from the free throw line this season, leading the nation in free throw percentage. He’s made 58 in a row dating to last season, and last weekend he broke Duke All-American J.J. Redick’s ACC mark for consecutive free throws made.
He is 25 away from tying Villanova’s Gary Buchanan, who holds the D-I record for most consecutive free throws made in a season (73 in 2000-01). But it could be difficult for him to add to his streak tonight.
UNC’s opponents are attempting 11.6 free throws per game, the fewest in the nation.
MARSHALL VS. LORENZO BROWN
Marshall, UNC’s starting point guard, leads the ACC in assists with 9.5 per game.
Brown, NC State’s starting ball handler, leads the league in steals with 2.0 per game.
Marshall, who might need to start playing more minutes because of the loss of Strickland, said he’s excited about the matchup.
“Up to this point, I think Lorenzo Brown has had quietly one of the best point guard seasons this year,’’ Marshall said. “Definitely best in the ACC. He does a lot of things very well. ... I’ve watched him a lot, and [the] thing that I’m most impressed with is how he’s transformed his game in the past eight months. He went from being more of a scoring 2 to learning how to play the point guard position. And at his size [6-foot-6], I think he does a great job of it.”
ESPN Stats and Information contributed.
Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.