North Carolina-NC State Preview
North Carolina followed last week's crushing loss against its fiercest rival with a rout of its ACC co-leader at the time.
To remain alone atop the conference, the Tar Heels must take care of business against another in-state foe - this time toward the bottom of the standings.
Seventh-ranked North Carolina looks to avoid a letdown Wednesday night when it visits its neighbor to the east - North Carolina State.
The Tar Heels (22-5, 11-3) went from lost in the middle of last week to back in control by the weekend, following a bitter 74-73 home loss to then-No. 20 Duke on Feb. 17 with Saturday's 96-71 blowout of then-No. 11 Miami on the same court - their largest win over a Top 25 team since December 2008.
"Now what are we going to do?" Marcus Paige asked the team's official website. "Are we going to fold? A lot of the top teams are trying to find out what they're going to be. We decided to come together and make this about us. ... How are we going to finish this season? How are we going to be defined?"
After opening 8-0 through a light early ACC schedule, North Carolina hit a rough patch with three losses in five games against Louisville, Notre Dame and the Blue Devils. The Tar Heels close the conference slate at No. 3 Virginia on Saturday, at home against Syracuse on Monday and at No. 15 Duke on March 5 - hoping to escape a congested top-half of the league for their first regular season title since 2011-12.
One of UNC's early victories was a 67-55 home win over NC State on Jan. 16 to continue its dominance in this series. North Carolina is 24-3 against the Wolfpack since the 2003-04 season, including a 10-2 mark in Raleigh.
Though they rode the ACC's highest-scoring offense to Saturday's win over Miami, shooting 54.2 percent to up their scoring average to 83.9, the Tar Heels struggled in last month's low-scoring affair against NC State. Neither team shot better than 40 percent - the Wolfpack meeting that number and UNC finishing at 37.9 - while each side's top two scorers went cold.
Brice Johnson and Paige combined to make 4 of 15 shots for nine points, but Kennedy Meeks made up the difference by finishing 10 of 16 for 23. The Tar Heels held Anthony Barber and Maverick Rowan to 19 points on 8-of-26 shooting, though Abdul-Malik Abu finished with 12 points and 14 rebounds.
Meeks' role in North Carolina's offense has largely disappeared since that game. Though the 6-10 forward is shooting 56 percent, he's averaging only 6.9 points in the last nine games. Johnson, meanwhile, has flourished inside, averaging 18.3 points and 12.2 rebounds in the same span.
The ACC's leading rebounder (10.6) has seven double-doubles during that stretch.
NC State (14-13, 4-10) has surrendered an average of 77.6 points in conference play and 80.9 while losing five of its last eight games.
The Wolfpack logged their third straight home win, however, with Saturday's 77-74 victory over Clemson. Abu finished with 17 points and 16 boards, while Rowan and Caleb Martin combined to make 8 of 16 3s for 36 points - offsetting a rough 1-for-12, eight-point day for Barber, who leads the ACC with 23.1 points per game.
''It's nice to take some weight off his shoulders sometimes and just play as a team and play team ball and get the win,'' Rowan said.