North Carolina will be ranked higher than N.C. State when they meet Tuesday night and there’s nothing unusual about that, at least not in this generation. PNC Arena will be a raucous, frenzied mosh pit and there’s nothing unusual about that either.
What’s strange and bizarre and totally out of character in this particular edition of the rivalry is that in the very specific sense of which team has a sense of what it is and what it wants to do, they’ve switched places from where they typically have been recently.
With its hustle and defense, N.C. State knows exactly what it has to do to be successful, and plays with the confidence of knowing that. And North Carolina is still grasping for that sense in almost every respect, right down to the basics.
Certainly there’s often a degree of that for the Tar Heels this time of year – you can set your calendar to Roy Williams being unhappy with his team in January – and especially in years when North Carolina has to play small, but there’s no question this team has had a harder time of that. It even extends to some very uncharacteristic and fundamental problems: Rebounding, turnovers, defense.
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North Carolina has struggled with these basics because of a collection of factors of varying degrees, from a freshman point guard to Luke Maye’s curious senior struggles to the lack of a true big man and on and on and on. The Tar Heels’ talent is unquestioned. Their ability to make the most of it remains very much in question.
Even against Gonzaga, when North Carolina’s offense was in high gear, the Tar Heels were plagued with curious turnovers. This team has a lot more to offer. The question is whether it can get there.
The Wolfpack, meanwhile, has become something far more than the sum of its parts. It knows its identity, and believes in it: N.C. State plays defense and plays it hard and counts on things working out at the other end of the court. The Wolfpack can scrap it out to beat Auburn and shoot it out to beat Miami. It isn’t always clear where the offense is going to come from on any given night, but when Markell Johnson gets going – as he did last year against North Carolina – look out.
Even when Johnson isn’t, there’s the all-around play of Torin Dorn and the slashing of Devon Daniels and C.J. Bryce and the long-armed putbacks of D.J. Funderburk. The Wolfpack doesn’t do everything well, but Kevin Keatts has it doing what it can do very well.
There’s very little uncertain about what N.C. State is going to do or how N.C. State is going to do it, and the Wolfpack is playing with the confidence that comes from knowing that for the first time in a while.
Typically, that’s true of North Carolina. But not this year.
“This has been a unique team,” Williams said last week, and it wasn’t a compliment.
There’s still plenty of time for North Carolina to figure it out – Saturday’s win at Pittsburgh was a step in the right direction – and Williams’ record at PNC suggests the Tar Heels will have a chance to find a way to win Tuesday even if they don’t.
But these are unusual days when N.C. State is secure within the armor of its identity and North Carolina is not. The Wolfpack knows exactly what it has to do to win and the Tar Heels are still figuring it out, painfully at times.