Since coming back to Chapel Hill in 2003, Ol’ Roy has added the N.C. State men’s basketball team to his list of long-term possessions. Quite simply, Roy Williams has owned the Wolfpack, compiling a 19-1 record against his Raleigh rivals over the past nine seasons.
(In the one loss, back in 2007, Tar Heel shooters were blinded by Sidney Lowe’s stunning red sports coat, allowing State to produce a four point upset.)
Just two weeks ago, all that seemed set to change. N.C. State was the team on the rise, and Carolina was a team staring into the abyss after consecutive losses to Virginia and Miami. State’s huge win over Duke cemented expectations that State could go on to take control of the conference standings.
It hasn’t quite worked out that way. State followed up its Duke victory by coming out of the gate ice cold against Maryland in College Park, eventually losing the game on a last-second shot by Alex Len. Bad, but mildly forgivable. Then State allowed Clemson at home to hang around until the final minutes before finally putting the game away. A warning sign, but not a mishap in itself.
Then came Tuesday night in Winston-Salem. State started impressively, using defensive pressure and repeated drives to the rim to build a 14-point lead against the inexperienced Deacons. Neutral viewers could be forgiven for being tempted to turn the game off at halftime.
Maybe State’s players mentally did that, because they didn’t bother to play much defense over the first sixteen minutes of the second half, allowing Wake to completely turn the game around. The Deacons converted six consecutive field goal attempts in one stretch, en route to 59 percent shooting in the second stanza. State woke up and made an impressive push to nearly overturn a ten-point deficit in the final four minutes, but costly missed free throws by C.J. Leslie in the final minute allowed Wake to close the game out.
That lapse of effort in the second half, causing a clearly superior State team to a lose to an outfit outside the top 100, casts Saturday’s game against Carolina in a different light. After dropping two games in three, the pressure is on Gottfried and his players both to stop the recent bleeding and to finally get that win over the Tar Heels. With Carolina playing significantly better basketball in its last three games, that’s no longer a slam-dunk proposition.
State might respond in two (not mutually exclusive) ways. They may come out fired up and determined to put a hurt on Carolina for all 40 minutes. Or, if the game gets close, they might freeze up, remember that they are playing the Tar Heels, and succumb to the sheer pressure to win by making panicky plays.
As unlikely as that latter scenario seems, the perception that Carolina presents a psychological barrier to this Wolfpack team will persist until they go ahead and break it. Last year the Tar Heels won both regular season meetings by double digits, then won the ACC Tournament semifinal by a bucket with John Henson sidelined when officials chose not to call a block or charge on Kendall Marshall’s late gamewinning shot. Perceptions of the justice of that non-call fall on partisan lines, but at the end of the day it was another win in the Tar Heel column.
All that seems a long time ago at this point. What is clear is that this is a must-win game for State, and a bonus game for the Tar Heels. Some basketball observers go by the theory that playing looser and with less pressure leads to playing better, and others go by the theory that emotion can be channeled into greater intensity and hence performance on the court.
Of course, in some instances both theories could be applicable at the same time. The path to a Carolina victory on Saturday probably must follow the same route Wake Forest took—get State’s relatively short rotation into serious foul trouble early and force the Wolfpack to rein in their trademark aggressive defense in order to keep their best players on the floor. State's zeal to force blocks and steals could backfire if Carolina can pick up fouls on key players such as Leslie.
On paper, State is still the better team, and also in my view the team more likely to execute solid halfcourt offense in the final minutes, if it comes to that. Nonetheless, Carolina will enter the game feeling it has a very realistic chance of winning. Fans from both sides have reason to be excited and nervous, and so-called “neutrals” have reason to expect not only a passionate but a well-played game, in what could well be one of the most memorable evenings of the ACC winter.