The season for UNC began with plenty of ups and downs, with losses to Iowa and Butler, but recently have lived up to their preseason expectations and potential. With a narrow loss to Notre Dame and the win over Louisville, the Tarheels have been a lot more impressive as of late. This is largely due to more consistency, especially from key players like Kennedy Meeks. Meeks has been the Heels’ best player on the season 12.8 points and 8.6 rebounds per game. He slimmed down in the offseason, which has obviously paid off. Helping Meeks is Brice Johnson and JP Tokoto, who are two very athletic players capable of contributing a lot to their team. The combination of these three players has helped UNC climb to second in the nation in terms of rebounding. It will also likely to be these three players who Carolina will depend upon tonight, as they stack up very well with NC State’s big men, offensively and defensively. With Marcus Paige dealing with a foot injury, and inconsistency from other guards, UNC needs them to play like they have been all season. The frontcourt is an area where the Tarheels hold an advantage over their rivals from Raleigh. While NC State’s big men were definitely impressive in the win over Duke, they still do not match up completely with UNC. Just looking at each team’s starting lineups, this is clear to see. The matchup with Meeks will likely be given to Kyle Washington, while Brice Johnson will likely be defended by Abdul-Malik Abu, an athletic freshmen who just recently earned a starting spot for the Wolfpack. On top of that, JP Tokoto and Justin Jackson will need to be defended, and will draw Ralston Turner and Trevor Lacey. This could create some mismatches, especially for whoever is matched up with Tokoto. Carolina holds the advantage inside, and will need to exploit it in order to earn a victory in Raleigh.
For NC State, three things must be done in order to win. These three things are the same three that State executed well against Duke. The first is three-point shooting. NC State holds the advantage here when compared to Carolina. Trevor Lacey and Ralston Turner will have to continue to be efficient against Carolina, much like they have been all season. On Sunday against Duke, they led the Pack to 10 of 16 from three point land, and an overall shooting percentage of 55%. If the two shooters can be deadly from beyond the arc, it will greatly increase NC State’s chances of winning. The second thing NC State must do well is play defense. Through ACC play, NC State has held opponents to about 37% shooting, and have been able to force turnovers. They have held opposing guards back, and have played solidly underneath. Anthony ‘Cat’ Barber will guard Marcus Paige, and he needs to keep him out of the game, and allow NC State to hold the advantage in the backcourt. Lastly, State needs the frontcourt to play like they did against Duke. Beejay Anya had a career game last time out, and he could draw an assignment with Meeks or any other Carolina bigs. Lennard Freeman will need to contribute on the glass, something which he can do very well. NC State is undefeated when Freeman grabs 8 or more rebounds in a game, so his underneath play is key. Kyle Washington and Malik Abu will have to contribute offensively and defensively, and be efficient in scoring. To sum all of this up, if NC State plays with the same energy and efficiency as they did in the win over Duke, they will likely pick up a second huge win in just as many games.
Prediction time: NC State should be able to outplay Carolina on the perimeter. They have done it all year long to other teams, and will probably keep it up tonight. However, it will be very difficult for State to match up with UNC’s talent in the frontcourt. Kennedy Meeks should have a big night, as will JP Tokoto, who could be the key to the game. Creating mismatches underneath the basket, Carolina will be able to post up NC State’s defenders, rebound the ball, and outplay their rivals. It will be a close game throughout, and Carolina, who holds a 22-2 record against NC State since 2003, will walk out with a win. 77-70, UNC wins.