North Carolina junior guard Caleb Love has never truly experienced what the rivalry is like with N.C. State.
The Tar Heels’ 79-76 loss at PNC Arena his freshman season was accompanied by COVID-19 protocols and empty seats. As a sophomore, the Wolfpack was the ACC’s last-place team, so not much fanfare surrounded that late-season meeting, either.
Love and Carolina have won the last four games against State, including an 80-69 win Jan. 21 in Chapel Hill, and nine of the last 10 in the series.
“I wouldn’t even say it’s a rivalry,” Love said. “It’s just another game.”
It won’t be just another game Sunday.
When UNC travels to PNC Arena for a 1 p.m. tipoff, it will be a different experience for Love and the Heels.
Roles have reversed. Carolina is not ranked, while the Wolfpack is No. 23. It marks the first time in the series that’s happened in a decade. (No. 18 N.C. State beat the Heels 91-83 on Jan. 26, 2013.)
And the Pack is currently projected as an NCAA tournament team, while the Heels still have work to do, according to most prognosticators.
UNC forward Armando Bacot said it all just made the stakes higher after Monday’s loss to Miami, which was another squandered chance to get a coveted Quad 1 win in the NCAA’s NET rankings formula.
“It’s huge. One, it’s a rivalry game, and two, it’ll be probably the craziest environment of a UNC and N.C. State game definitely since I’ve been here,” Bacot said. “Just because right now, they’re ranked above us. They’re playing better basketball than us and we beat them here. And the way it all went down, it’ll be on fire. If we don’t come ready to play, if the moment’s too big for guys, they’re going to kill us. It won’t be close at all.”
Duke played around and found that out when the Wolfpack dismantled the Blue Devils 84-60 at PNC Arena on Jan. 4.
The Pack is a bit healthier than in the first meeting against UNC last month, as forward Jack Clark is back after missing 10 games with a muscle injury. Clark has come off the bench the last two games and logged 31 minutes in Tuesday’s loss at Syracuse.
UNC forward Puff Johnson also didn’t play in the first meeting as one of three games he missed with knee soreness. Johnson could play a key role for the Heels if starter Pete Nance continues to struggle with his shooting. Nance is shooting 28% from 3-point range after missing his last 17 attempts.
The team has been focused on its spacing offensively with the belief that they can unlock more scoring, Love said.
“Making shots,” Love said. “That’s what will change everything is us making shots, and us having the confidence and taking and making those shots.”
Winning at State would give Carolina a Quad 1 win. The Heels are currently 0-9 against Quad 1 opponents, a metric the NCAA tournament committee will use to both measure at-large teams and seed them.
UNC coach Hubert Davis isn’t obsessing over the latest tournament projections, and he doesn’t want his team to either. His approach is to have the Heels focused on what they have to do to put them in a position to get there.
With five games remaining in the regular season, Sunday against N.C. State and a Feb. 25 home game against Virginia are currently North Carolina’s only Quad 1 opportunities. Duke would have to move up from its current position at No. 34 in the NET to No. 30 in order to be classified as a Quad 1 game for the teams’ regular-season finale March 4.
“I want us to reach our full potential and I don’t think we have,” Davis said. “…I feel like this season has been inconsistent from the standpoint of, I feel like we take a couple steps forward and we take a step back. And so that’s where my focus is on, because I feel like if this team continues to improve and this team plays up to its potential, I don’t have to answer that question. It’ll take care of itself.”
Tipoff time + TV channel for Sunday’s game
The game will start at 1 p.m. Sunday and will air on ESPN.
How to stream UNC vs NC State game online
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Game details: UNC vs NC State
Teams: UNC Tar Heels (16-10, 8-7 ACC) vs. No. 23 N.C. State Wolfpack (20-7, 10-6 ACC)
Where: PNC Arena, Raleigh
When: 1 p.m. Sunday
Series history: The Tar Heels lead the overall series 164-79. Carolina won 80-69 on Jan. 21 in Chapel Hill.