A Tale of Two Rivals

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – This was supposed to be the year that Tobacco Road enemies North Carolina and N.C. State were going to battle each other in rivalry games that would legitimately decide the ACC championship. While that may still hold true, these two programs have taken divergent paths in arriving at Saturday's showdown.

To compare and contrast these squads makes for quite the interesting exercise. North Carolina (16-0) entered the season as the overwhelming favorite to win the ACC, but N.C. State (11-3) was not too far behind, trailing second-place Duke by only 12 votes. Both teams boasted a dominant post player (UNC's Tyler Hansbrough and NCSU's Brandon Costner), and both Roy Williams and Sidney Lowe demanded an up-tempo style of basketball that would ignite their fan bases.

Therein lies the first and most prominent difference in these two programs. While UNC's Ty Lawson (13.5 points and 5.4 assists per game) is arguably the nation's best point guard in the open court, NCSU began the season with a triumvirate of inexperienced players at position – sophomore transfers Farnold Degand and Marques Johnson, and true freshman Javier Gonzalez. Degand earned the starting nod and displayed gradual improvement in running Lowe's offensive system – despite posting 19 turnovers to only 29 assists in 10 games – before tearing his ACL in a victory over Cincinnati on Dec. 23.

In addition to Degand's season-ending injury, other Wolfpack players that have missed time include junior guard Courtney Fells (ankle sprain) and sophomore forward Dennis Horner (ankle sprain). North Carolina counters that list with junior guard Bobby Frasor (season-ending ACL tear), Ty Lawson (ankle), Quentin Thomas (ankle) and Alex Stepheson (personal reasons) – all of whom missed at least one game.

Degand's loss was a crushing blow to what Lowe wanted to accomplish in the open court.

"I think Marques is more of a control game, and Javi is kind of in-between, so they are not guys that really look to push it up," Lowe said during his Friday press conference. "We still like to get rebound and push it ahead and kick it ahead and see if we can get some easy baskets… I think certainly personnel though is a factor right now. Right now we don't, we don't have that jet like Farnold in there right now, but we're still going to look to push the ball ahead and see if we can get some easy baskets."

The Wolfpack has struggled offensively since Degand's injury, scoring 50 and 54 points, respectively, in recent wins over Presbyterian and North Carolina Central. NCSU is averaging just 67.3 points per contest (11th ACC), compared to UNC's 92.1 points per game (1st ACC).

But if you're wondering how those offensive numbers and the Wolfpack's 11-3 record match up together, all you have to do is look toward their defensive statistics. N.C. State is only allowing 61.3 points per game (3rd ACC) and their opponents are managing just a 37.7 shooting percentage (3rd ACC).

In a direct contrast, North Carolina's most pressing concern is its defensive play – specifically its on-the-ball guarding ability. The Tar Heels rank in the middle of the conference in field goal percentage defense (41.8 percent – 8th) and 3-point percentage defense (32.1 percent – 6th). Williams has been adamant about what his squad must do to improve in that regard.

"I think it's pressuring the ball more, getting out and denying and just stopping the other team from doing what they want to do," Hansbrough said. "I think that's what Coach [Williams] wants us to do. He also wants us to box out and do that better, and only allow teams one shot."

Frasor even played the role of bench coach when asked about correcting North Carolina's defensive inefficiencies during Friday's press conference.

"If we stay in front of the basketball and focus on where you're supposed to be, help early and then this team defensively can be really good," Frasor said, who will have surgery to repair a torn ACL in his left knee at noon on Monday at the UNC Hospitals.

One thing is for sure, though – when these two bitter rivals meet on the hardwood Saturday afternoon, you can toss the stats into the trash bin located underneath your sink.

"It's going to be another big-time game – it always is," junior wing Marcus Ginyard said. "I don't really see it as too much different from the Duke game. The media definitely make a bigger deal about the Duke game, but I feel like on the court, N.C. State and North Carolina is just as scrappy of a game."

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