By Bobby Hundley
North Carolina State (GoPack.com)
Location: Raleigh, N.C.
Rankings: NCSU - No. 51 KenPom, NR AP; UNC - No. 8 KenPom, No. 14 AP
Records: NCSU - 12-3, 1-1 ACC; UNC - 13-3, 1-1 ACC
Carolina Series History (Last Meeting): UNC leads 153-77 (UNC 80, NCSU 68, Feb. 24, 2016, PNC Arena)
Cat Barber was indisputably one of the best players in the ACC last season. The 6-2 junior led the ACC in scoring and was on the court 96.1 percent of the time for NC State, making him the Pack's most important piece. You could argue, however, that the next three most important members of the Wolfpack were on the bench but unable to play.
Fast forward to 2017 and each of the big (and unavailable) three is on the court and thriving for Mark Gottfried's club. Fifth-year senior Terry Henderson (injured in the first game of the season), third-year sophomore Torin Dorn (transfer from Charlotte) and freshman Dennis Smith Jr. (early enrollee, injured in August 2016) all watched in street clothes as the Pack limped to a 16-17 finish last season, and now they are making sure that doesn't happen again.
Smith has been the talk of Raleigh (and beyond) as one of the nation's most dynamic freshman. After suffering a torn ACL prior to his senior year of high school, Smith opted to graduate early to get a head start on his time at NC State. That decision appears to have paid off for everyone in red and white, as Smith leads the team in scoring (19.6 ppg), assists (6.5 apg) and steals (2.1 spg). He's also coming off his first career triple-double - a 27-point, 11-rebound, 11-assist masterpiece in Wednesday's shellacking of Virginia Tech.
Henderson and Dorn have made the departed Martin twins an afterthought thanks to their stellar shooting. Both guards are 6-5 and both are making at least 41 percent of their 3s, 55 percent of their 2s and 76 percent of their free throws. As a team, State ranks 23rd nationally in effective FG% and 31st in KenPom's adjusted offensive efficiency. Pair that with a top-50 adjusted tempo and Saturday figures to be one of the more thrilling games of the entire ACC season.
Junior Abdul-Malik Abu continues to thrive as one of the more underrated big men in the league. He has consistently been an above-average rebounder, especially on the offensive end, and he's also evolved into a dangerous shot-blocker. But what really catches the eye is his improvement as a scorer. His current percentages of 59.3% on 2-point FG attempts and 76.4% from the free throw line are big jumps from his career averages, giving the 'Pack the interior scoring threat they've lacked since T.J. Warren.
While returners Maverick Rowan and Beejay Anya and freshmen Markell Johnson and Ted Kapita have also been rotation players for Gottfried, the biggest X-factor for NC State may be 7-0 freshman center Omer Yurtseven. A native of Turkey who is a rising star internationally, Yurtseven made his collegiate debut on Dec. 15 after serving a nine-game suspension for his time with the Turkish club Fenerbahçe. It's too early to know how significant his impact will be on this year, but he has already moved into the NCSU starting lineup and his size will be a factor.
State basically spent the first two months of the season beating everyone it expected to beat and losing to any top-100 foe. That all changed in a big way Wednesday, when the Wolfpack rolled Virginia Tech - fresh of its own beatdown of Duke - 104-78. After Saturday, NCSU has a four-game stretch that figures to be the softest of its league schedule - at BC, then home vs. Georgia Tech, Pitt and Wake Forest. Whether or not State will become part of the upper echelon of the ACC prior to that, however, depends on what happens in Chapel Hill.