North Carolina, fresh off its 20th victory of the season and tenth in ACC play this winter, renews its ages-old rivalry with North Carolina State Wednesday night in Raleigh in the RBC Center. Tipoff is set for shortly after 9:00 pm, and will be televised on Raycom/ACC Network.
While some of Carolina's biggest meltdowns have come on the road this season---at Illinois, at Georgia Tech, at Duke---the Tar Heels have done a considerably better job playing away from Chapel Hill this year than a lot of people may have thought at the beginning of the season.
While Carolina's perfect 13-0 mark in the Smith Center (and 6-0 mark in ACC play) is a big reason why the Tar Heels are still in the hunt in the ACC standings with just four regular season games left, UNC's 4-2 road record in league play (wins at Virginia, Miami, Boston College, and Clemson), is a testament to this young team's growing maturity and toughness.
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"I think at the beginning of the year we struggled with it (playing on the road), and we all sat down and talked. Our team cohesion is good enough that we all support each other," said junior Tyler Zeller.
"We kind of go in with the challenge that 'It's them against us,' and we've just got to do as much as we can," Zeller added.
"Our mental toughness---us having better chemistry, us playing together, more focused---everybody knowing their role and knowing what to do and what Coach wants and just executing it well. We're doing a good job of that," said sophomore Dexter Strickland.
"(We're doing well on the road because of) focus and being tough, as Coach always says, and not getting down on ourselves---I think that's the best part of this team is we could be down 20 points and everyone thinks we're coming back. That's something that's good for us to have," said sophomore John Henson.
The Tar Heels easily took care of business the last time these two teams played---Carolina won 84-64 over the Wolfpack back on January 29---but in a lot of ways these are two considerably different ball clubs now.
As Kendall Marshall has become the undisputed floor general of the Tar Heels with the departure of Larry Drew II, NCSU head coach Sidney Lowe has gotten back his freshman point guard, Ryan Harrow, who was sick and didn't play in the first meeting between the teams.
As has been the case with Roy Williams relying more and more on his freshmen over the course of this season, Lowe has been depending more heavily on the production of his first-year players in recent contests as well.
The result was a recent two-game winning streak for the Wolfpack and a strong showing for much of the game this past weekend at Maryland.
Although NCSU wound up falling to the Terrapins, the team's improved play of late should give them a ray of confidence heading in against the despised Tar Heels.
"Just the same way we played Boston College---we blew them out (at BC)---we also blew N.C. State out)," said freshman Harrison Barnes.
"It's just a mindset and a mentality that just because you played someone once and you beat them, you can't go out there and just expect the same thing to happen again."
After a somewhat subpar effort on Sunday in the win in Chapel Hill over Boston College, UNC can't afford to take a similar attitude into the RBC Center.
The Wolfpack fans will be fired up, eager to talk trash and make things miserable for the Tar Heel players if they can.
The NCSU players themselves believe they can compete with the Tar Heels, and UNC has to resist that early surge of momentum that their players and fans are sure to bring.
"I think it's good to have teams give you their best shot. We've just got to weather the storm and come out with the win," said Henson.
"I think it's going to be a tough game. I don't think we can play like we played here (against Boston College) and win that game, so we've got to start working on some things and get better."
"We've got to be prepared," Barnes added. "If we go over there (to Raleigh) and we come out with the same energy we had tonight (against Boston College) we're going to be in for a long night."
Henson admitted that the Tar Heels may have taken Boston College a little lightly given the way they pounded them in Chestnut Hill only a few weeks earlier.
But the way that particular game played out should serve as a valuable lesson for this team.
"I think we did take them (BC) lightly actually, so we've just got to not do that," said Henson. "I don't think we came prepared to play. They're a good team. They've had a few wins and they've been hot lately."
Against an NCSU squad that's plenty talented and more than capable of beating Carolina on their home court if they play at their best, UNC needs to stay focused and not allow complacency to set in.
"You've just can't look at their record and assume that's how they're going to play, or how we played them last time," Barnes said.
"(The BC game) showed us that's not always going to be the case, so we prepare just like we would any other game and just play our style. It's a very big lesson learned."
"A win is a win at the end of the day, but we do have to play better, because the stretch we have coming up---at N.C. State, Maryland, at Florida State, and Duke---I don't think we are going to be able to keep getting away with stuff like this," Henson added.
With a solid core of returning players and one of the more heralded freshman classes in recent memory, Wolfpack fans were hoping for big things at the start of this season.
At 14-12 overall and sitting with a 4-8 mark in ACC play, things clearly haven't gone as well for NCSU this season as they were originally anticipating.
The situation has put Coach Lowe squarely on the hot seat and the N.C. State team itself into a precarious position as it relates to the postseason.
Once again, it appears they'll have to run the table and win the ACC Tournament to play in the NCAA's.
It's a 'backed into a corner' type of scenario, and as the old saying goes, there's nothing more dangerous than to back a wild animal---in this case a pack of wolves---into a corner.
While UNC has been playing well of late and should feel confident heading into Wednesday night's showdown, it's essential that they understand the desperate nature of this N.C. State team and come out ready to take care of business.
The alternative is allowing NCSU to stay in the game or even burst out to an early advantage---giving them confidence and a spirit that could be tough to overcome.
"We just need to be more mature," said Barnes. "At this point in time you can't keep saying you're a young team."
"I mean, right now we should be maturing. There are only four games left in the ACC now. We need to be maturing and coming out with the perfect mindset to be able to play," Barnes added. "I think we need to act more mature in terms of our mental approach."
But after handling the crowd atmosphere at Duke very well for the most part---not to mention keeping the crowds quiet in Charlottesville, Chestnut Hill, Miami, and Clemson--- the Tar Heels are optimistic that they can keep the Wolfpack faithful dispirited over the course of Wednesday's game as well.
"It will be interesting. I think everybody did a great job (handling the crowd dynamic) at Duke, and it's tough to beat that. Hopefully we can do the same thing over there (in Raleigh)," said Zeller.
"I'm looking forward to it. We kicked their butt when they came over here, and we're going to kick their butt when we go over there," said Strickland.