Inching Toward March

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – The second meeting between No. 7 North Carolina and N.C. State is lacking the local media hype of the first matchup in January, but this time postseason aspirations are at the forefront of the conversation.

The Tar Heels finish the regular season with three of their four games on the road, starting with the Wolfpack on Tuesday. North Carolina is tied atop the ACC with Duke and Florida State with identical 10-2 conference records, but if the ACC Tournament started today, UNC would be the No. 3 seed due to its losses to the Blue Devils and Seminoles.

In order to claim a second-straight outright ACC regular season championship, North Carolina likely needs to win out and get some help from one of Florida State's remaining opponents. The best possible ally in that regard is Duke, which travels to Tallahassee on Thursday night.

Win the ACC and then a possible No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament comes into view, although the competition for the final two No. 1 seeds is fierce since Kentucky and Syracuse essentially have locked up the other two.

North Carolina opened as a five-point favorite over N.C. State, but the Tar Heels have won 11 in a row by an average of 16.1 points per game. UNC's length and athleticism has posed numerous matchup problems for the Wolfpack in the last three games.

NCSU post players Richard Howell and C.J. Leslie combined for nine points on 3-of-12 shooting in the opening half of the first matchup on Jan. 26 as UNC built a 14-point halftime lead, due to the presence of John Henson and Tyler Zeller inside. Scott Wood entered that game averaging 15.6 points per game, but a taller and quicker Reggie Bullock held him scoreless on 0-3 shooting in the first half.

But junior forward John Henson wasn't willing to admit to the matchup issues for the Wolfpack on Monday. The primary concern for North Carolina is to not fall behind early. The Tar Heels have trailed by eight or more points in the second half in three of their last four road games.

"Our goal is that we want to come out with a strong start and take the crowd out of it early," Marshall said. "If we can do that, it'll be a lot easier than if we let the crowd get behind them. I think they're also honoring one of their teams, so the juices are going to be flowing for them. We just want to take the air out of the building as quick as possible."

N.C. State will be honoring the 1988-89 squad that posted a 22-9 (10-4 ACC) record and won the ACC regular season title. reported on Monday that members of that team, including Chris Corchiani and Tom Gugliotta, were contacted on Sunday morning about the ceremony, less than 24 hours after those former standouts were ejected by referee Karl Hess in the second half on Saturday's loss to Florida State.

Give Gugliotta and Corchiani credit for shifting the media attention away from N.C. State's putrid play against the Seminoles and focusing it on officiating instead.

In games against the ACC"s top three teams, the Wolfpack have played well in just one of six halves. N.C. State shot 54.8 percent (17-of-31) in building a 46-30 halftime lead at Duke, but connected on just 32.9 percent of its field goal attempts (47-of-143) in the other 100 minutes of action.

N.C. State head coach Mark Gottfried's postgame comments on Saturday were eerily similar to his quotes following the UNC and Duke losses.

"We all go to work sometimes and nothing goes your way, we were having one of those days," the first-year Wolfpack head coach said. "I didn't think we were as mentally tough as we could have been. We just accepted our fate."

Adding to those concerns is the fact that Tuesday is essentially a must-win for N.C. State's NCAA Tournament hopes. The Wolfpack currently rank No. 60 in the NCAA ‘s RPI with no signature victory on their resume – wins against Miami (No. 47 RPI) and Texas (No. 51) sit atop the list.

A loss to the Tar Heels would drop N.C. State to 7-6 in conference play with Clemson (No. 156), Miami and Virginia Tech (No. 102) remaining. To land on the right side of the NCAA bubble, the Wolfpack would likely have to win out in the regular season and at least reach the finals of the ACC Tournament, and that may still not be enough.

"Hopefully we're not the team that necessarily helps them out in the long run, but we're just going to go out there and play our best," Henson said.

Wins are clearly critical throughout the entire season, but they seem to care a little more weight as the calendar winds down. After all, March is only 11 days away.

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