Carolina's matchup with NC State tomorrow presents perhaps the most interesting one-on-one matchups of the season. A capsule look at the players to watch:
Point Guard: NC State's Lorenzo Brown (6-5, 186) vs. UNC's Marcus Paige (6-0.5, 157)
For all the talk about Carolina's smaller lineup, and State's use of T.J. Warren, the point guard position is where the Tar Heels simply must get a better performance, or the rest of the matchups will be secondary. Brown has torched Carolina lately, amassing 54 points and 23 assists over his last three games against the Tar Heels. Twenty of the points and 11 of the assists came in the first meeting this year, when Brown overwhelmed Paige.
This time, however, Paige gets the advantage of playing at home, and he has played solidly through the difficult last four games of the schedule (13 assists, 5 turnovers). Every young point guard at some point gets taught a lesson by an older, wiser veteran. It happened to Kendall Marshall against Duke's Nolan Smith in the 2011 ACC Tournament, and it happened to Paige in Raleigh against Brown. The return match will show how much he learned from it.
Shooting Guard: NC State's Scott Wood (6-6, 169) vs. UNC's Dexter Strickland (6-3, 180) or Reggie Bullock (6-7, 205)
This is where it gets interesting. Bullock has given Wood fits over the past two seasons, as State's sharpshooter is just 9-for-30 in his last four games against the Tar Heels--due largely to Bullock.
But leaving Bullock on Wood means Strickland would have to defend the much bigger Warren. This is an intriguing choice, and the answer in Saturday's early minutes of the game will be informative as to which player Roy Williams feels is the bigger threat.
Offensively, you would think Strickland would be guarded by Wood. If that's the case, it's imperative that the Tar Heel senior makes Wood defend some drives to the basket rather than trying to shoot jumpers over him.
Small Forward: NC State's T.J. Warren (6-8, 233) vs. UNC's Strickland or Bullock
Warren was spectacular against Virginia Tech this week, totaling 31 points and 13 rebounds. But he hasn't been as effective away from PNC Arena, and Carolina will pay close attention to him after watching him shoot 9-of-12 in Raleigh. The key for Bullock or Strickland: get back on defense, because several of Warren's buckets in the first meeting came in transition, as the Pack lit up Carolina for 39 fast break points.
Carolina has been able to unleash Bullock defensively in the past because they haven't needed him to contribute quite as much offensively (he's averaging just 6.8 points per game in six career games against the Pack). But the Tar Heels will need him to score tomorrow, no matter how much energy he's exerting against Warren or Wood defensively. It sounds simple, but Carolina absolutely must make shots to limit State's opportunities to grab a defensive rebound and dash away on a fast break.
A wild card is Leslie McDonald, who scored 15 points in Atlanta and has been trusted with some big defensive assignments this year, most notably against Virginia Tech's Erick Green. For the Tar Heels to stay with the smaller lineup, they need McDonald to be consistent.
Power Forward: NC State's C.J. Leslie (6-9, 200) vs. UNC's P.J. Hairston (6-5.5, 220)
Hairston's quick hands have quietly been one of the underrated storylines of the lineup switch. He has a knack for knocking the ball away in the post, which has turned into some transition opportunities for Carolina. Hairston got an early taste of playing occasional post defense against Georgia Tech's Robert Carter Jr., who finished Tuesday night just 4-of-11. Like Carter, Leslie can occasionally be persuaded to float away from the basket.
The key here might be in keeping Leslie off the glass. Richard Howell is by far the Wolfpack's best offensive rebounder. Allowing Leslie (who is not a prolific offensive rebounder, as his 19 offensive boards in conference play is the exact same as Hairston's total, who has played 133 fewer minutes) to become an impactful secondary offensive rebounder would be very damaging for Carolina's chances. Offensively, Carolina would benefit if Hairston--who has attempted 17 free throws in his last three games--could find a way to get to the free throw line against the sometimes foul-prone Leslie.
Williams expects to play two big men more often--"I really foresee the fact that we'll play two big guys together more," he said on Friday--so Brice Johnson, Jackson Simmons, Desmond Hubert and Joel James (who is cleared for practice Friday and will test his conditioning before his game status is determined) will also be important here.
Center: NC State's Richard Howell (6-8, 257) vs. UNC's James Michael McAdoo (6-9, 230)
Interesting matchup here between a big man who is most effective on the block and a big man who is most effective away from the block. McAdoo picked up two early fouls against Leslie in Raleigh, which jumbled the rotation for the rest of the first half. The more wide-open Tar Heel offense over the last three games could take Howell away from the basket, where he pulled down 14 rebounds in the first meeting, and create a little more space under the rim.
Adam Lucas is the publisher of Tar Heel Monthly and the author or co-author of seven books on the Tar Heels