Duke's not the only good team in the area

When will we all learn to stop knocking teams just because they have lost a few stars?

When will we just pencil in a few teams because they have programs -- not just teams?

After NC State lost do-everything guard Julius Hodge, everyone was somewhat asleep on it in the preseason -- the Wolfpack didn't quite make any of the ESPN/USA Today, AP or ESPN.com top-25 polls. They don't ever seem to get the necessary push in the preseason because they're a bit vanilla. They're not sexy. They play in the shadows of Duke and North Carolina.

And why was the assumption made that the Tar Heels were done for a season just because they lost seven players? Well, it was seven players -- the top seven (Rashad McCants, Sean May, Marvin Williams and Raymond Felton, to name a few). Still, this is North Carolina-Chapel Hill, not North Carolina A&T. The Tar Heels get players.

So, it shouldn't come as a shock that NC State goes to North Carolina on Saturday for an anticipated ACC game. The Wolfpack are ranked No. 12 with a stellar 12-1 record (1-0 in the ACC after a home win over Miami). The Tar Heels are ranked No. 25 at 8-2 as they prepare for their ACC opener.

The Wolfpack are a legit challenger to Duke, along with Boston College and Maryland. Although expecting the Blue Devils to lose more than a game or two in the ACC could be a reach, the Pack are right in the mix to be contenders.

North Carolina might not be in that company, but it's not far behind, sitting with Wake Forest in the next tier.

So, how has NC State not missed a beat after losing Hodge, Mr. Everything in Raleigh?

"They've got experience," said George Washington coach Karl Hobbs, whose previously unbeaten Colonials were sliced up by the methodical Wolfpack last week. "They've got seven guys who can score. No one is bickering about playing time. They've got more balance this year."

That's not a slight against Hodge. He was still the catalyst for this squad, the go-to player when things went awry. It was Hodge who seemed to will the Wolfpack past Connecticut in an NCAA Tournament second-round upset. Hodge averaged 17 points, 6.6 rebounds and 4.8 assists for the season -- a well-balanced line.

But the Pack are even more communal without Hodge. The top seven players are all major contributors, with the bigs -- Cedric Simmons, Andrew Brackman and Gavin Grant -- all in tune with the guys on the perimeter (Ilian Evtimov, Engin Atsur, Cameron Bennerman and Tony Bethel).

Simmons, Brackman and Grant are in their second season understanding Sendek's system. Bethel finally is feeling better after battling health issues all of last season. Atsur is coming off another international summer playing ball, and Evtimov is yet another year removed from missing the season with an ACL injury.

But to get an objective read on why the Wolfpack are where they stand heading into this game, we went to a coach who has faced them (and might have to again). As such, he didn't want to reveal his name, but he didn't mind handing out a realistic appraisal of the difference in this squad from last season's.

"Hodge was difficult to prepare for and he could take over games, but they're playing together more than just looking to Hodge to take over a game," he said. "They play the game better as a team.

"I've never been a fan of open post motion for a great team," the coach said of Sendek's style of play, which has some Princeton principles but is hardly a true Princeton offense. "But NC State shoots it so well that they don't rely on that, and they play defense and run and it gives you a changeup. I'm not a fan of that offense, but NC State is pretty darn good with it."

That's an understatement. The Wolfpack have what Princeton would pay for -- five players on the court who can dribble, pass and shoot on most occasions. Atsur is becoming the perfect playmaker for this offense (sporting a better than 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio).

"NC State can challenge Duke, but the problem is J.J. Redick," the coach said. "He gives them a dimension that NC State doesn't have."

In other words, a difference-maker, someone like Hodge was for the Wolfpack last season. Sorry, that was too easy. Hodge was the player who gave the Wolfpack personality and an edge. They don't have that this season, but to win games, at least to this point, they haven't needed that presence.

The Tar Heels have been inconsistent, but they have lost only twice (vs. Illinois and at USC) to show for their erratic behavior. Tyler Hansbrough has lived up to his hype by grinding out 16 points and seven rebounds inside. David Noel has asserted himself as a leader (13.5 ppg). Reyshawn Terry has taken advantage of more playing time (12.9 ppg), and the rest of the freshmen -- Marcus Ginyard, Danny Green and Bobby Frasor -- are all solid contributors. Even former walk-on Wes Miller is coming in and making shots.

The signature win for the Tar Heels was at Kentucky. They'll need to do something similar in the ACC to ensure they're in the NCAA bid business this March.

"I think they're a top-30 team," said a coach who played them this season but didn't want to give his name in anticipation of scheduling the Tar Heels again. "They're very effective. They're good enough with their talent to beat people they're supposed to beat. They'll lose to those they're not supposed to, as well. The guys they've got coming in will dislodge some of the guys playing now. They'll win a lot of games [though] because they play hard and Roy is a really good coach."

But where will the Tar Heels end up?

"In the [NCAA] Tournament," the coach said. "And maybe surprise a few people and beat someone they're not supposed to."

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com