NC State must press advantage against North Carolina

N.C. State head coach Kevin Keatts yells to his players during the first half of N.C. State’s game against FSU at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C., Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023.

N.C. State head coach Kevin Keatts yells to his players during the first half of N.C. State’s game against FSU at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C., Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023.

By most metrics — objective, subjective, anecdotal, analytic — N.C. State is a better basketball team than North Carolina right now.

That’s not going to feel like it means a whole lot if the Wolfpack drops both games in the season series. At some point, and that point is Sunday afternoon, N.C. State is going to have to go out and prove it.

Head-to-head results are actually a lousy way to compare teams, especially if you’re on the NCAA selection committee, but they certainly have an outsized importance to players and fans, and especially in a rivalry like this. The technical gives way to the emotional in situations like this, and especially this particular one.

N.C. State has lost 31 of the past 36 in this series, and while North Carolina has obviously had the upper hand for almost all of that time over the past two decades — and Roy Williams would have had it no other way — that is unquestionably not the case this time around.

The Wolfpack is ahead in the ACC standings, the NET, some (but certainly not all) of the advanced analytical ratings and a solid No. 9 seed in the latest Bracket Matrix while the Tar Heels are clinging to the edge of the bubble. But that’s all kind of immaterial when it comes to the immediate friction between the teams because so far, on that count, the only game that matters was that 80-69 win on Jan. 21 in Chapel Hill.

With all the craziness in that game, it was kind of a universe into itself, with Terquavion Smith’s injury casting a pall over the occasion, even if it turned out to be a false alarm. But even in those uncertain moments, that didn’t stop Armando Bacot from slapping on a pair of sunglasses to mock Smith, who had been wearing them when he took a shot of his own at Duke and North Carolina after a win over Miami.

Which, with the benefit of the hindsight that Smith escaped injury, is the stuff that makes rivalries great — and if North Carolina felt like it needed to answer for Smith’s comments then, it’ll be interesting to see if the Wolfpack feels the need to return serve.

In the terms of the NCAA picture, this game is far more important to North Carolina, which is in desperate need of a Quad 1 win for its tournament resume. A win in Raleigh would go a long way toward avoiding the ignominy of going from the Final Four and the preseason No. 1 ranking to the NIT. That, as much as anything, is a statement of where N.C. State stands.

But in the big picture, the great big picture of basketball and life in the Triangle and in North Carolina, N.C. State needs this even more — not only to arrest a four-game losing streak but to cement this rare moment of authority in a rivalry that’s so often been heavily weighted toward the other side. These circumstances haven’t come along often, and the Wolfpack would be wise to strike while they’re not and the Tar Heels are not.

Being ahead in the NET or having a better seed in the ACC tournament is going to ring awfully hollow if N.C. State goes 0-2 against North Carolina when it went into both games on equal or better footing. Then again, a potential third meeting in Greensboro might matter even more.

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Sports columnist Luke DeCock joined The News & Observer in 2000 and has covered six Final Fours, the Summer Olympics, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He is the current president of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association, was the 2020 winner of the National Headliner Award as the country’s top sports columnist and has twice been named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.

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