As a huge North Carolina Tar Heels fan since childhood, I was around for the days when North Carolina versus the N.C. State Wolfpack meant almost as much as the Duke Blue Devils matchup does today. While the in-state rivalry might not be as volatile as it was back then, it still means plenty to hardcore fans and students. No two schools seem to dislike one another any more than these two college basketball heavyweights. Given the close proximity of the schools, I guess that is logical enough.
There are several reasons why this game means more than it has in recent years. There are also plenty of reasons why the game could end up being pretty darn close in the end.
N.C. State is better than originally expected
N.C. State has started out the ACC season at 4-1 and that is big news around these parts. Carolina is sitting at 3-1 and trying to get back to first place alongside Duke and Florida St. It has been awhile since Wolfpack basketball was truly relevant, but they appear to be working towards their first NCAA bid since the 2005 season. As of right now, they stand at a solid 15-5 record and are tied for first place in the ACC with FSU and Duke at 4-1.
State has played some solid basketball, and the losses they have were against teams that are pretty solid. One loss was against top ranked Syracuse, and the others were against Vanderbilt, Indiana, Stanford and Georgia Tech. Each of those losses were competitive games and they have yet to be truly blown out.
Carolina is having a bit of an identity crisis
The Heels have been struggling on the road, so fortunately the Heels will play this game at home. Still, the Heels are hurting by North Carolina's standards entering the season. Their three losses included one horrible loss to Florida State by over thirty points. Then, in a bounce-back blow out of Virginia Tech, the Heels lost starting shooting guard Dexter Strickland to a season ending knee injury.
Given these challenges, the Heels certainly have to be more vulnerable to the Wolfpack than they normally would. The Heels are less concerned about the shooting guard situation as they have plenty of depth there. The primary problem is at the point guard position. With Strickland serving as the primary back up when Kendall Marshall needed a break or got in foul trouble, they are now down to freshman Stillman White as a point guard option after Marshall. This could eventually be a good thing, but for now it leaves the Heels a bit nervous at the position.
Final Predictions for the Match Up
While State is certainly headed in the right direction, they are not quite there yet. The Heels are simply one of the best teams in the country and particularly so at home. I expect the Wolfpack to put up a heck of a fight, but the Heels to pull away and win by about ten. Nobody would be shocked to see the Heels blow them out, but I think the Wolfpack is far better than everyone realizes.
*Southern is a lifelong Tar Heels fan that drinks the "Michael Jordan is the greatest of all time Kool-Aid" proudly. He also counts the 1982 NCAA championship win as one of the greatest moments in college basketball history.