North Carolina, coming off a hard-fought and emotional victory Saturday afternoon at Clemson, return to the friendly confines of the Smith Center---where they're a perfect 11-0 so far on the season---for a Tuesday night conference tilt with long-time conference and in-state rival Wake Forest. Tipoff is set for 8:00 pm on Raycom/ACC Network.
The Tar Heels, who stand at 8-2 in league play and 18-6 overall, need this victory over Wake Forest (8-17 overall, 1-9 ACC) for a number of reasons.
A win would help UNC keep pace with frontrunner Duke, who holds a slim one-game lead in the standings right now over Carolina.
In addition, a victory over Wake means a winning record in ACC play and improving positioning for a possible first-round bye in the upcoming ACC Tournament.
Furthermore, the Tar Heels would inch ever-so closer to that 20-win benchmark that typically secures a postseason berth.
At this point in time UNC has truly played itself off of the so-called NCAA Tournament 'bubble,' as its streak of six wins in seven league games---marred only by a second half collapse in a winnable game at Duke---has made plenty of believers once again in Roy Williams and his team.
Wake Forest, on the other hand, is suffering through a nightmare of a season---a combination of a coaching transition along with considerable attrition from Dino Gaudio's last Demon Deacons squad a year ago.
The Demon Deacons are very young and very raw, and while there is talent on the team, they've been outclassed in a big way through much of this year's league schedule.
In its last outing Wake was dominated at home 80-55 by N.C. State, which had only two conference victories of its own coming in.
While North Carolina can never get complacent and believe they've won a game by merely stepping out on the court, they should feel confident given their recent performances that they can overwhelm a Demon Deacons team that has a lot of holes, especially on the defensive end.
Wake Forest is dead-last in the ACC in points allowed (76.9), scoring margin (- 8.1), field goal percentage defense (45.0 percent), and rebounding defense (37.5)---a potentially delightful combination of statistics for the Tar Heels going in.
"I think that they will have some respect for Wake," said Coach Williams of his players.
"I don't think that it will be that they'll take them lightly. I think they'll work really hard to try to get prepared to play."
"I think North Carolina, first of all, the challenge that they present to us is the fact that the defensive transition, they run the ball as well as any team in the country off makes and misses," said Wake Forest head coach Jeff Bzdelik. "They just explode down the court."
"We really need to explode back down the court in a way that we can be organized defensively to prevent them from getting easy baskets."
"The other thing they do really well is they pound the offensive glass with great length and quickness," Bdzelik added about UNC. "If you're not set in your defense because they push the ball so hard, then their transition offensive rebounding is outstanding."
The Demon Deacons, despite several ugly losses this year (89-79 to Stetson, 90-69 to Virginia Commonwealth, 81-69 to UNC-Wilmington, 90-74 to Richmond, 94-65 to Virginia Tech, 74-39 at Georgia Tech, 83-59 to Duke), do have a few things going well for them.
Specifically, Wake Forest leads the ACC in free throw shooting percentage (75.2 percent), with sophomore guard C.J. Harris ranking fifth in the league at 83.3 percent (120 of 144).
Harris, at 11.2 points per game, is one of five Wake Forest players averaging in double figures along with leading scorer freshman Travis McKie (12.5 ppg), freshman J.T. Terrell (11.5 ppg), lone starting senior Gary Clark (10.8 ppg), and then sophomore Ari Stewart, who averages exactly 10.0 points per contest off the bench.
"I've always felt that it is a difficult team to prepare for. If there are five averaging double figures, there is not one that you should focus on because all five of them can hurt you," said Williams.
Wake Forest ranks third currently in the ACC in three-point shooting (38.3 percent) led by Clark, who currently is shooting a phenomenal 60 percent (45 of 75) from three-point land.
Although his number of attempts doesn't qualify for a place on the ACC's leaderboard, Clark is currently the only player in America averaging 60 percent or better from three-point range, so UNC obviously has to keep a close eye out on No. 2 in old gold and black.
"Clark's leading the nation in three-point percentage," said Coach Williams. "Then Ari (Stewart) coming off the bench and Travis (McKie) is having a great year. What it boils down to is everybody individually has to do a great job of guarding their man without having to have too much help."
In addition, Wake has a couple of seven-footers in junior Ty Walker and freshman Carson Desrosiers that really help the Deacons in terms of shot blocking.
Walker, a former UNC target out of Wilmington (N.C.), ranks second in the ACC with an average of 2.8 blocks per game (behind only UNC's John Henson's 2.9 blocks per game), while Desrosier's 1.6 blocks per game ranks sixth in the league.
As a team Wake Forest ranks second in the ACC and eighth in the nation in shot blocking at 5.9 per game---so there could be a lot of balls swatted around between these two teams.
The Tar Heels, coming off a brutal stretch of competition that included key road victories at Boston College and Clemson and a 20-point win over Florida State, got a much-needed day off on Sunday to recharge their batteries for Monday's practice and then Tuesday night's clash with the Demon Deacons.
"We gave the team (Sunday) off because we're just beat up so much and need some time off," Williams said.
With only six conference games remaining, UNC is clearly at a place where every win counts in terms of postseason jockeying and leveraging a better road for themselves come March.
Wake Forest isn't a team to necessarily fear, but they're certainly a team to take seriously.
The Tar Heels can't afford to slip up against this particular opponent if they're to continue building respect on the national level once again after last year's 'off' season.
"My team is a very immature team in a lot of ways," said Williams. "But they've still been mentally strong enough to get through those times and pull together even a little bit more."
"For the most part, our guys are improving. I think they're getting better," Williams added. "It's a steady process for us. I've felt this team would be that way, and so far they have done that, and I hope we'll continue it, too."