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January 25, 2012N.C. State has earned immense respect from Carolina from the way the Wolfpack has improved throughout this season and the way it continues to perform.
"They have a first-year coach who has done a tremendous job of playing with his personnel," UNC sophomore point guard Kendall Marshall said.
The new coach is Mark Gottfried. His influence has steered the Wolfpack from a losing team last season into a legitimate contender.
In ACC play, N.C. State has defeated Maryland, Wake Forest, while losing at home to Georgia Tech.
The Wolfpack is tied for first place in the ACC standings with Duke and Florida State. N.C. State enters the Smith Center for this 7 p.m. tipoff with a 15-5 overall record, 4-1 in the conference.
"They're 4-1 and tied for first in the league," UNC coach Roy Williams said. "That does add more to it than if they were 1-4 and we were 19-0."
No. 7 Carolina is 16-3, 3-1, and the Tar Heels are coming off their best half of the season, which just happened to follow Carolina's worst game of the season in a 90-57 loss at Florida State.
UNC played exceptional basketball in outscoring Virginia Tech 48-29 in the second half of an 82-68 victory in Blacksburg.
Tonight will be different, however. This is the first full game for Carolina since starting shooting guard Dexter Strickland tore a ligament in his right knee. Strickland is out for the rest of the season. Sophomore Reggie Bullock will start in Strickland's place.
"I always wanted to start, coming to Carolina," Bullock said. "It just didn't work out for me. Coach always preached to me to just keep working hard and playing my game and my time would finally come. I didn't want it to happen like this. I know it was a big loss to our team, but I just have to go out there and perform."
The same can be said for the rest of the Tar Heels. There has been far too much inconsistency for the preseason No. 1-ranked team in the nation.
"We have to play with a lot of fire in our guts," Bullock said.
The circumstances are not dissimilar from a year ago, when the Tar Heels were coming off ugly 78-58 loss at Georgia Tech. Williams replaced Larry Drew with Marshall in the starting lineup, and Drew soon disappeared without speaking to the coaching staff or his teammats.
When he resurfaced, he had returned to his home state of California, eventually enrolling at UCLA.
The Tar Heels responded to the ugly game at Tech and the loss of Drew by getting better by the day. They finished first in the ACC regular-season standings and made it to the round of eight in the NCAA tournament before losing to Kentucky.
Marshall said this team can and will draw from that experience.
"We have a team that is capable of great things, and we haven't played to that level yet this year," Marshall said. "We've had glimpses of it: the Texas game, the second half against Virginia Tech, even against Kentucky. We didn't win but I think we showed what kind of team we can be. Now it is just a matter of going out there and getting it done.
"I think we're a lot more relaxed than last year at this point," Marshall said. "It was like, 'Oh, my god, what are going to do without Larry?' Going through it for a second time, we're a lot more aware of the situation."
The Wolfpack ended the 2011 season 15-16, 5-11 in the ACC final regular-season standings. This season's team simply does not resembles the one from last season.
"They're really a good team," Williams said. "They really are. You have five guys averaging from 11.9 [points per game] to 13.3. That is impressive. That is a hard team to guard. You look at conference stats, they are scoring more than we are.
"They have a better scoring margin. They're shooting the ball better than we are. They're holding teams to a lower [shooting] percentage than we are. They're better from 3, and they're holding teams to a lower percentage from 3 than we are. If you look at all those stats, they are playing better in just about every phase of the game, in statistical purposes, than we are. A lot of times that translates into wins and losses.
"There is a lot of things going on for them. But Mark has done a nice job of taking some veteran players and getting them to buy into the way he wants them to play. It's a tribute to him, and it's a tribute to the kids, too. They're playing unselfishly. They're guarding better. They're doing a lot of things [well]."
For Carolina, this game is about maintaining the momentum it generated against Virginia Tech and starting the process of overcoming Strickland's absence.
"At the end of the day, life goes on," Marshall said. "We can't stop the season and say let's wait until Dex gets back. One thing Coach [Steve] Robinson always tells us is just solve the problem."
N.C. State will present a formidable problem.