College Basketball

DeCock: NC State’s guards give Wolfpack a chance at North Carolina

North Carolina's Marcus Paige (5) guards N.C. State's Trevor Lacey (1) during the first half of the Wolfpack's game against North Carolina at PNC Arena in Raleigh on Jan. 14. The game ended as an 81-79 win for the Tar Heels.
North Carolina's Marcus Paige (5) guards N.C. State's Trevor Lacey (1) during the first half of the Wolfpack's game against North Carolina at PNC Arena in Raleigh on Jan. 14. The game ended as an 81-79 win for the Tar Heels. ehyman@newsobserver.com

It’s been a generation since N.C. State could even venture a claim to a better backcourt than North Carolina. Literally. Chris Corchiani helped make the best case, in 1989-90. His son Chris Jr. is a Wolfpack walk-on now.

Not since Fire and Ice have N.C. State’s guards compared this favorably to what the Tar Heels have to offer. It only feels like that long since N.C. State has won in Chapel Hill, but the trio of Trevor Lacey, Ralston Turner and Cat Barber has a chance to change that Tuesday.

The key will be getting all three firing at the same time, which didn’t happen in the first meeting in Raleigh, an 81-79 win for the Tar Heels. Lacey and Turner combined for 39 points, but Barber had only five on 1-for-5 shooting. North Carolina’s Marcus Paige outplayed them all, as he so often does against N.C. State, with a season-high 23.

It starts with Lacey, whose ability to create his own shot is only slightly less impressive than his clutch instincts. Barber has the quick first step to get to the rim, and is playing some of the best basketball of his career in recent weeks. Turner is the kind of dead-eyed 3-point shooter usually found on the North Carolina wing – but not this year. That diversity makes N.C. State even more difficult to defend.

“That’s a major concern for the team they’re playing on the defensive end of the floor,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams acknowledged.

Considered together, it’s a more fearsome collection than North Carolina can offer this season, a departure from the days of Raymond Felton and Rashad McCants and Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington and Kendall Marshall and Harrison Barnes and Reggie Bullock and P.J. Hairston, to name only a few.

Paige is at that level but has been hampered by injuries. Even if he were fully healthy, this still wouldn’t be a classic Carolina backcourt without another consistent outside threat. Justin Jackson has been scraping for confidence all season, and J.P. Tokoto is lethal within 3 feet of the rim but erratic farther away.

Simply put, N.C. State’s backcourt has more ways to hurt you.

It’s been decades since N.C. State could say this, probably since the Fire and Ice days of Corchiani and Rodney Monroe, although even when they could make their best case, as juniors in 1990, the Tar Heels could run out Hubert Davis and King Rice against them.

Guard play is college basketball’s trump card, and Lacey, Turner and Barber account for 56.8 percent of N.C. State’s scoring. When all three score in double figures, N.C. State is 8-2, including the Wolfpack’s upset at Louisville.

It’s going to take a similar tripartite effort to neutralize North Carolina’s decided advantage inside, where Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks both average in double figures and reserves Isaiah Hicks and Joel James have both improved substantially over the course of the season.

“Probably what flies under the radar is how effective Brice and Kennedy have been for them,” N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried said. “I think that’s been as important as anything. I thought in the first game, those two guys – and also Isaiah Hicks, he played phenomenal in that first game, probably the best game of his career. We’ve got to do a much better job on those guys around the basket.”

There’s nothing new about that. North Carolina has an advantage in the post against most teams – the Tar Heels soundly outscored even Duke and Jahlil Okafor in the paint in last week’s loss – and will again against N.C. State.

The difference is the outside, where N.C. State might just have an advantage for the first time in many, many years. Even that may not be enough for the Wolfpack’s first win at the Smith Center since 2003.

DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947

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