Backcourt Takes Center Stage

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – There are a variety of matchups to focus on leading into Saturday night's rivalry contest between North Carolina and 18th-ranked N.C. State. The determining factor, however, may be found in the backcourt competition.

The Wolfpack is one of only six schools in the country with five guys averaging double-figures, according to UNC head coach Roy Williams. The motor behind that efficiency is junior point guard Lorenzo Brown, who leads the Wolfpack in assists (8.3) and ranks second on the team in points (13.8) and rebounds (5.5) in ACC play.

"Lorenzo Brown is playing about as well as any point guard around," said Williams, who owns a career 24-1 record against N.C. State.

Freshman two-guard Rodney Purvis (9.9 ppg; 40.4 3-point FG percentage) provides an additional perimeter offensive threat with plenty of speed to thrive in transition.

The Wolfpack tandem is averaging a combined 25.6 points per game on 45.0 percent shooting in conference contests.

That's where the problems arise for the Tar Heels. Backcourt starters Dexter Strickland and Marcus Paige are averaging a combined 9.0 points on 27.6 percent shooting in conference play.

"We don't have the inside scoring threat that we've had in the past, so we need guys to shoot a better percentage from the perimeter," Williams told reporters on Friday. "There's no question that I'd like for my guards to shoot better, but three or four games ago, I told them I was getting ready to substitute for them before the game started, taking them out of the starting lineup because their defensive grades were so poor. And since then, their defensive grades have been very good…

"But it bothers me, there's no question."

North Carolina has been able to survive the offensive difficulties of its starting guards due to the continued emergence of James Michael McAdoo, Reggie Bullock and P.J. Hairston, but should one of those three struggle on Saturday, the Tar Heels will need help from its other perimeter options.

Strickland has never been a primary scoring option during his career at UNC, but he's displayed a greater tendency to fire jumpers from the perimeter this season with minimal results.

"I think Dexter is a much better shooter than he was last year, even though he shot 57 percent last year," Williams said. "Last year, his shots were down. He took great shots and he took layups on the break. Now he's taking more jump shots."

Strickland is most effective offensively scoring in transition and penetrating the lane, which apparently is something that he's aware of.

"I'm not bragging at all, but I feel like my guy has a tough time keeping me in front of him, so I just try to be aggressive and go right by him," Strickland said following Wednesday's win over Georgia Tech.

Paige, on the other hand, has a more adept offensive game, although the statistics might suggest otherwise. The rookie point guard, weighing in at a light 157 pounds, is shooting 25.0 percent (9-of-36) through five conference games.

Despite those numbers, Paige has shown a willingness to be aggressive in penetration and has an ability to make quality dishes, as evidenced by his 12:3 assist-turnover mark over his past two games.

Williams brought up former Kansas guard Adonis Jordan – the first player he ever recruited as a head coach – when talking about Paige on Friday. Jordan's field goal percentage hovered in the low 30s during his freshman season before exploding to over 50 percent as a sophomore.

"Particularly with a freshman like Marcus, you're not going to have everything," Williams said.

While that history lesson may bode well for the future, it doesn't help for Saturday's game. Junior wing Reggie Bullock believes Paige will be up for the challenge that Brown represents.

"Marcus is a great player; he was a five-star recruit coming out of high school, so he played against good talent," Bullock said. "So I know he's ready to play in a big-time game like this, so I'm not really worried about it. I'm more worried about it as a team and just hoping that we're going to be focused enough in the game to be able to come out with a win."

There's plenty of truth in Bullock's comment. If North Carolina fails to play as a team at PNC Arena, there's little chance it emerges with a victory.

An ability to neutralize N.C. State's backcourt, however, could play a determining role in extending UNC's winning streak over the Wolfpack to 14 games.

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