"This is by far the best State team I've seen since I've been back here," Roy Williams said during his weekly press conference on Friday.
Few would argue Carolina (8-2, 0-0 ACC) has raised expectations with its defensive play, despite its lofty 80.6 points per game average. The scoring numbers are greatly enhanced due to routinely mediocre early season competition, but it's been defense that UNC has hung its hat on as the ACC season now gets underway in earnest.
Despite the Wolfpack's basketball resurgence in recent years, Carolina has handled State's so-called "Princeton-style offense" the last couple of years mainly thanks to superior athletic and skilled talent.
"We like to pressure the ball and get in the passing lanes at the same time, and I think that is one of the things we do that bothers NC State," senior David Noel said. "As long as our freshmen realize they have help, but not to always rely on help and defend your man one-on-one, then we'll be OK."
UNC's defense is right now every bit as good, or better, than last year's national championship squad's; at least statistically speaking.
Carolina's field goal defense is a solid 40.2 percent on the season, while NC State (12-1, 1-0) leads the conference in scoring defense, allowing just 58 points per game. Clearly the Wolfpack wants to keep scoring down, while UNC will look to feast off its ability to score in transition and get its Smith Center fans into the game early on.
The Tar Heels lead the league in rebounding margin (+9.3) – one of many areas of preseason concern. And although UNC has no player individually ranked in the ACC's top 10 in steals, it ranks second in the category as a team with 11 per game.
In its last two outings, Carolina held UNC-Asheville and Davidson to just 20 first half points. And until their 8-0 run over the final 2:38 of the opening half Tuesday night, the Wildcats had just 12 points.
And while the Tar Heels are just ninth-best in the ACC allowing 64.8 points per game, they're also scoring more points than the rest of the conference except for Maryland (85.2) and Duke (82.1).
But Carolina's three-point defense is ranked dead last, allowing opponents to shoot 37 percent from beyond the arc. Williams said he only began showing his team scouting film of State at noon on Friday.
"They're averaging 53 shots per game and 24 of them are threes, so we are facing that kind of threat," Williams said. "I don't think that you can take and design a defense to beat North Carolina State today. So we will just make some little changes and hope that the kids can make those adjustments."
In other words, the Tar Heels will by no means try and revamp their defensive strategies and philosophies in preparation for the Wolfpack's offensive scheme. For one thing, there is simply not enough time. And for another, Carolina is rarely ever going to change anything drastically for just one opponent no matter who it is.
"We're not going to let our opponent dictate what we're going to do," Marcus Ginyard said. "Whether we're playing UNC-Asheville or N.C. State, we're still going to run our same stuff."
"What we did all year long, we're going to try to do tomorrow," Williams said. "What they did all year long, they're going to try and do tomorrow."
Still, there will be some subtle defensive adjustments for UNC. For instance, in order to try and slow State's penchant for kicking the ball out for a three-pointer, the Tar Heels will not help down in the post quite as much.
"It's really not the ‘Princeton offense,' and it's much more difficult to defend than what they've done in the past," Williams said.
With former ACC Player of the Year Julius Hodge having now graduated to the NBA, the Wolfpack still return seven of their top contributors from last season. And Hodge's departure may actually mean a tougher task ahead for the Carolina defense than in previous years.
State's four leading scorers – all averaging double-figures – are separated by less than one point.
"I think they're a much better team without Julius," Noel said. "This year we really don't know who to guard, so we have to guard everybody."
Williams concurred: "I've always said it's more difficult to defend a balanced team, than one which has one guy take all the shots. I'd much rather play that guy – unless it's Michael [Jordan]. Julius was huge for their team – there's no question about it – but I happen to think they're much stronger than they were last year."
Another reason for State's improvement has been the emergence of 6-foot-9 sophomore center Cedric Simmons, whose three blocked shots per game ranks second in the ACC only to Duke's Shelden Williams. Simmons leads the Wolfpack in scoring with 12 points per game.
"They haven't had anything like that the last couple of years," Williams said. "Simmons is more confident, aggressive and effective than he has been in the past."