And then there were four… games left in the regular season that is. Tonight at the PNC Arena will be the first of the stretch run. With tip off at 8:00 p.m. EST, #19/21 North Carolina (20 & 7 ~ 10 & 4) will go against in-state foe N.C. State (17- & 10 ~ 7 & 7) in a game that means a lot to both of the programs. For the Tar Heels this is a needed game if the team wants to stay in the hunt for a third place in the conference. For the Wolfpack this is a must win if they want to have a high caliber win for their resume when the selection committee looks into the bubble teams. If UNC was to win this game they will have won ten games in a row, but they will be doing it against a team that has not played in two weeks in Durham and with two of their starters possibly not being at full strength.
Checking the calendar, N.C. State has played one home game this month, two weeks ago, so you have to believe the fan base should be ready to watch their squad at PNC again. Needing three wins for the 20 game plateau that usually is the bar that teams need to make it to the Big Dance, a quality win would help the Wolfpack immensely. This is also a return match, with the first game going 84 to 70 to the Heels, third win of this nine game streak. And while State has no chance to be one of the top four of the conference, beating Carolina could derail the Heels from being able to rest until Friday come the post season tournament.
It is also a game where two of the starters for head coach Roy Williams, fifth year senior Leslie McDonald and freshman Kennedy Meeks, are not at full strength due to ankle injuries. From what I have read around the internet it is likely that the the guard will play normally, while the big man might not play at all, or for a limited time. The good news is that both players did practice yesterday. For this squad it’s also the first game since early January where they will be ranked going into a game. Between the streak, the ranking, playing a rival, it is a lot of pressure for this squad.
Having said all of this, I am a firm believer that this team will go as far as its two leaders, sophomore combo guard Marcus Paige and junior power forward James McAdoo, will carry them. With McDonald not a full strength Paige can ill afford to be Mr. Second Half only. The second year player will have to hit some clutch shots in the first twenty minutes in order to keep the opponents from sagging on the UNC bigs. And speaking of the players in the paint, while if Meeks’ status is uncertain and could either play just as much as usual or he could play a lot less or not at all, it will be up to McAdoo to truly do a lot of the work underneath and the rest of the bigs to pick up the slack.
This means players like freshman point guard Nate Britt, who has been playing better and better of late, and sophomore J.P. Tokoto, who has become a shut down defender and done pretty well on offense, will have to step up to fill the void that the injuries to their team mates might make. If this happens then it will go a long way into getting the W for UNC. If not, N.C. State could truly put up a hard match up.
As a squad it can not afford to come out slow and they must hit their open shots and be good on the charity stripe. On D the team must play as well as it has in their current winning streak and not give the Wolfpack easy baskets. If UNC wants to go deep into the NCAA Tournament they will have to overcome adversity. A road game against a rival program with a pair of players not at full strength seems to fit the bill of “adversity” and it will be interesting how the squad does.
In a game where North Carolina is a 5.4 points favorite and I think that is about right, with the Heels winning this game by the final of 76 to 71, in a match up which will go down to the wire.