The key to the game for UNC will be Marcus Paige. Paige, in the first meeting between the two teams in January, had 23 points, made all 5 of his three pointers, and added in 9 assists and no turnovers. This was the reason that UNC won the game, as Paige looked comfortable and played like the preseason All-American he was supposed to be. If he can match this performance, then it would go a long ways in giving UNC a great chance at winning. The Tarheels already own the clear advantage under the basket, so all they need is for Paige to step up and play like he is supposed to. It would not be bad either for Carolina’s other guards (maybe Joel Berry, Nate Britt, and Justin Jackson) to give a little bit of production.
While North Carolina may hold an advantage on the interior, NC State’s guard play has been a little better this season. This is an aspect of the game that NC State will need to exploit, as the trio of Anthony Barber, Trevor Lacey, and Ralston Turner will, as they have been all season, the key playmakers for this team. In fact, these three guards contribute 40.9 points per game, as well as a fair amount of assists. The offense revolves around the trio of guards, and as of late, it has worked. Lacey has been about as reliable as can be all season long, often coming through in clutch situations. He leads the country in isolation points, proving that he is adept at creating shots for himself with ease. Ralston Turner is the team’s main shooting threat, and seems to be coming out of a bit of a slump. In the last two games, wins over Louisville and Virginia Tech, the senior is 6 for 12 from three, and has certainly gotten some confidence back after his streak of poor performances. Speaking of confidence, there is nobody hotter than Cat Barber in the ACC right now. Over the course of the last five games or so, Barber has become a lot more assertive in getting to the basket with his quickness, and also shooting. He has improved immensely since he became more aggressive, scoring over 20 points in three of the last five games, while contributing tons of assists with only a few turnovers. He was the key in the wins over Georgia Tech and Louisville, and is playing at a very high level. Carolina will have their hands full defending the trio of guards who are all starting to play a little better.
Underneath the basket is where UNC holds the biggest advantage in this game. Carolina is second in the nation in offensive rebound percentage, rebounding over 40% of their misses. This tends to be a problem for the Wolfpack. Against Louisville, they were able to solve this problem. Lennard Freeman started that game (and the VT game), and has provided a rebounding boost. Also, Caleb Martin has stepped up his rebounding game as well, with over 30 rebounds in the last 4 games. NC State also needs guys like Beejay Anya, Kyle Washington, and Abdul Malik Abu to have a strong inside presence in order to hang with the Tarheels. Even if these five guys can perform at a high level tonight, it is a tall task to play with UNC’s frontcourt. Carolina scored a mind-boggling 62 points in the paint in the overtime loss to Duke last week, and looked unstoppable underneath the basket. Duke is similar to the Wolfpack in that they rely heavily on their guards, and the inside play is not the leading factor on their team. Carolina will certainly look to attack the rim, both in scoring and offensive rebounding. How many second chance opportunities they can score on will determine whether or not NC State can remain in a competitive state in this one. The group of Kennedy Meeks, Brice Johnson, JP Tokoto, Isaiah Hicks, and Joel James is a group that can easily overmatch the weaker interior of the Pack. NC State will need to hold UNC off the boards, and get out to the offensive end without UNC getting many second chances at the rim.
Prediction time. Carolina has been on a bit of a cold streak lately. Granted, they are losing to some of the best teams the ACC has to offer, but they have still dropped 4 of their last 6. NC State is not on a much better streak, by the way, as they have lost 5 of their last 8 games. This is without a doubt a huge game for NC State. They have a chance to put themselves on the better side of the bubble, and have a chance to upend rival North Carolina. The Tarheels, however, are at home, and will certainly come ready to play. If their frontcourt plays the same way they did against Duke (or the way they have for most of the season), and they can get Marcus Paige going on the perimeter, this one could be a blowout. I think NC State will keep the game close, but will not be able to withstand the strong interior play of their rival. Another thing to note is that Roy Williams has lost just twice to NC State since becoming UNC’s head coach, so Carolina has controlled the series for quite a while now. The Tarheels will pick up the win, 80-69.