CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – No. 10 North Carolina enters Wednesday’s matchup with N.C. State in contention for the ACC regular season title and a top seed in next month’s NCAA Tournament. The Wolfpack, on the other hand, is battling Boston College to avoid last place in the conference standings.
Such is the diversion along Tobacco Road between these bitter rivals. Business as usual for one; escalating chaos for the other.
In many respects, UNC’s 2016-17 season is entering its prime. The Tar Heels are in a devious closing ACC stretch, one that many observers highlighted in the offseason as a decisive set of games, before ramping up for the postseason. Mark Gottfried’s squad appears to be going through the motions, waiting for these final three weeks to pass before bowing out in Brooklyn.
Local ABC affiliate WTVD-11 cited sources on Monday in reporting that N.C. State had decided to fire Gottfried following his team’s 88-58 loss at Wake Forest on Saturday. The school’s athletic department has denied the report.
Roy Williams disputed the rock bottom theory on Tuesday, noting that after UNC’s 51-point dismantling of N.C. State on Jan. 8 the Wolfpack rallied to upset Duke at Cameron two weeks later, a feat his team failed to do last week. N.C. State has lost five straight since then, including three defeats by 24 points or more.
“We realize the game got out of hand here,” Williams said. “They’ll be more enthused. They’ll be fired up. They will be able to make so amends for some of the other things that have happened. Some of the other losses can be balanced out by one game if it’s us.”
N.C. State’s glory years are long past. The Wolfpack has finished a season ranked in the AP Top-25 just once since 1988-89, and has failed to make a dent in UNC’s dominance of the rivalry since Williams returned to Chapel Hill before the 2003-04 season. Williams is 31-3 all-time against N.C. State, including a 26-3 mark at UNC, although he was quick to dismiss the relevancy of that record.
“That’s not going to help us one bit going in there tomorrow night,” Williams said. “… I don’t ever think the previous game has anything to do with the next game. It’s just that every game is its own little entity into itself. If somebody else says it’s been easy, then they haven’t been sitting where the hell I’ve been sitting.”
Even a closer look into Wednesday’s matchup indicates programs working in different directions as UNC’s strength is N.C. State’s weakness. The Tar Heels lead the ACC in league play in adjusted offensive efficiency (116.1) and offensive rebounding percentage (42.3), according to kenpom.com. The Wolfpack’s defense, on the other hand, has been historically bad. N.C. State ranks last in conference play in adjusted defensive efficiency (118.7) and 13th in opponents’ effective field goal percentage (56.4).
N.C. State currently ranks 216th with an adjusted defensive efficiency rating of 106.8, the second-highest mark in the ACC on record (Pomeroy’s database dates back to 2001-02). The Wolfpack’s last five opponents have combined to average 1.3 points per possession.
Williams is correct that a rare win over the Tar Heels will alleviate some of the pain and anger percolating within the N.C. State fan base. More importantly, his team needs to show improvement at PNC Arena before heading into the final five games of the regular season. UNC has endured its own breakdowns on the defensive end of late, as its opponents have shot 50 percent of better in seven of the last 11 halves.
“The biggest thing is just not letting the other teams get to the hole and get easy layups,” junior guard Joel Berry said. “And then just protecting the 3-point line. I think sometimes we try so hard to protect the inside that we end up giving up a lot of threes. We just have to have a better balance of being able to stop the ball from getting inside and also stopping the three.”
This rivalry may not be what it once was, but N.C. State only has to rise above its disarray for 40 minutes on Wednesday to relive its glory days, if only for a short while.