North Carolina State and North Carolina are not the same teams they were when the rivals met in Raleigh in late January.
The Wolfpack, which won that contest 91-83, have been through some adversity, which has resulted in a lengthening of their bench and tweaking of a few roles. The Tar Heels have gone small with a lineup of mostly wings and guards while also trimming the rotation.
They meet for the second time this season Saturday, though this game is at the Smith Center at UNC and it carries a bit more weight than the first meeting. With the postseason just around the bend, the Wolfpack and Tar Heels need security in knowing whom they are moving forward.
For NC State, that means this new seven-man rotation that now includes freshman point guard Tyler Lewis cant fall back into the situational thing it was before Lorenzo Browns Jan. 29 ankle injury forced coach Mark Gottfrieds hand regarding Lewis.
The diminutive playmaker had seen only 23 minutes in ACC play prior to Browns injury and it was quite clear he didnt have Gottfrieds confidence. But he played so well in place of Brown he earned a spot in the rotation. In two full games at home versus No. 2 Miami and at No. 6 Duke, Lewis totaled 29 points, 11 assists and just one turnover.
The flexibility he gives NC State is that Gottfried can play Lewis and Brown together now, allowing Brown to work off the ball and look to score more. It also blends in a different look than freshman Rodney Purvis on the wing. And given Purvis inconsistency, thats a nice alternative that improves the team, not to mention the layer of fiber gained working through Browns injury.
Well, I think this, and I could be wrong, but I think every team that finds that groove or really begins to play great basketball at the end usually has gone through some adversity somewhere during the year, Gottfried said. And I think adversity forces you to evaluate your team a little differently, the players to evaluate roles more specifically, and usually that adversity can help you is its handled right.
Gottfried, though, cant go back to his iron-six rotation, and that Lewis played just 10 minutes in Tuesdays win over Florida State could be reason for concern.
Roy Williams Tar Heels, on the other hand, have finally gone small. It really doesnt matter that it took Williams too long to make the move, at least given the information we have Williams says a lot is too complicated to talk about but the most important fact is that UNC has transformed itself. Well, its still transforming, but the result has been quite impressive.
A competitive loss at Duke followed by convincing wins over Virginia and at Georgia Tech, as P.J. Hairston justified his new starting spot and added minutes 62 points and 20 rebounds in 94 minutes are clear signs the Tar Heels are springing forward.
They are playing faster, generating more possessions and their overall spirit has ticked up a few notches. And UNC is also doing things its way. The Tar Heels forced a bigger Yellow Jackets team to adjust to them, not the other way around. Yet, the Wolfpack is taller and larger, and could force Williams hand.
A lot of it depends on match-ups and what the other team does and a lot of that kind of stuff that would determine if we keep our lineup shortened, the coach said, if youll let me use that terminology.
As for the game, NC State doesnt have to win to maintain its current track towards an NCAA Tournament invitation. The Wolfpack (19-7, 8-5) cant afford to get blown out, either, as the potential internal fallout from an ugly, finger-pointing kind of loss could hurt the team psyche moving forward.
North Carolina needs the victory more than the Pack. UNC (18-8, 8-5) is up to No. 27 in the RPI, so unless the Heels fall apart, they should make the NCAA field, too. But their seed can range anywhere from the play-in games in Dayton to a respectable single-digit seed.
UNC still has Duke at home and a trip to Maryland remaining, so the Tar Heels can enhance their resume. And, after all of the public fuss about needing to go small, Tar Heel Nation might come unglued if the Heels fall at home to the Pack.
So as usual, this is a big game even if little was on the line. But with so many variables surrounding this game, it should serve as one of the more fascinating ACC contests of the season.