What to expect when No. 10 UNC men's basketball faces rival NC State


N.C. State's Dennis Smith (4) drives to the basket during the game against UNC on January 8. 

The No. 10 Tar Heels (21-5, 9-3 ACC) are coming off an 8-point loss in Durham, where the Wolfpack (14-12, 3-10 ACC) beat the Blue Devils three weeks ago. But N.C. State has dropped five straight since the upset win, including three losses of 20-plus points.

How do they play?

Despite its disappointing record, N.C. State’s offense has held its own this season.

The Wolfpack boasts an efficient attack inside the arc, led by the scoring prowess of Dennis Smith Jr., Terry Henderson and Abdul-Malik Abu — who form the fourth-highest scoring trio in the ACC.

Nobody lights it up from deep and no player other than Smith gets to the line at an impressive rate. But N.C. State manages to create the shot it wants even without superb spacing or ball movement.

The Wolfpack is also a different team at home. Since the start of conference play, N.C. State is 1-6 on the road but 2-4 at home — with all four losses coming within 10 points or less. For a team that lost by 30 points at Wake Forest four days ago, returning to Raleigh means everything.

Who stands out?

If there’s one bright spot in N.C. State’s tumultuous season, it’s Dennis Smith Jr.

The first-year phenom from Fayetteville — who was voted the ACC Preseason Rookie of the Year — has lived up to his first-team billing. Through 26 games, Smith leads the conference in assists (6.8), ranks second in steals (2.0) and is tied with UNC’s Justin Jackson for fifth in scoring (18.7 points).

The 6-foot-3 point guard has recorded two triple-doubles this season, more than any player in the nation. He’s also been excellent against ACC opponents in PNC Arena — averaging 21.3 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds in the Wolfpack’s six home conference contests.

The Tar Heels have struggled to stop ball-dominant guards who attack the lane this season. Smith’s aggressive approach and ability to find open teammates could pose problems for the North Carolina defense.

What’s their weakness?

Simply put, N.C. State is defensively challenged.

The Wolfpack ranks dead last in the ACC in scoring defense (79.9 points per game) and allow opponents to grab 31 percent of their missed shots, per kenpom.com — a recipe for disaster against the Tar Heels. N.C. State is also among the nation’s worst at forcing turnovers, which has given North Carolina trouble in losses this season.

Some of this defensive futility can be blamed on inexperience. The Wolfpack has one of the youngest teams in the nation and has little continuity in its lineup, two classic pitfalls of an inconsistent defense. But if N.C. State falls behind early — like it did in a 51-point loss to UNC on Jan. 8 — it could be over fast.

How could they win?

The Wolfpack’s best hope for a victory tonight is a North Carolina collapse.

It’s not impossible. The Tar Heels are 3-3 in road ACC games this season, including two straight losses, and UNC has played down to its competition this season — against the six worst teams in the conference (excluding N.C. State), the Tar Heels have four close wins and two double-digit losses.

But it would likely take another triple-double from Smith and a frigid shooting performance from UNC for the Wolfpack to down its rival.



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