Plenty at stake for Tar Heels, Wolfpack in rematch

UNC heads to Raleigh with NCAA hopes, while NC State looks to salvage its season

Kevin Keatts got a vote of confidence from NC State AD Boo Corrigan, but the Wolfpack coach could further make his case to return next season with a win over the rival Tar Heels on Saturday at PNC Arena. (PJ Ward-Brown / North State Journal)

It’s safe to say that when UNC travels to NC State for a rematch between the two rivals, Roy Williams won’t be making a halftime appearance.

Ol’ Roy has been more visible in his first year of retirement than he was when he was on the Carolina sideline. He’s been a fixture in the stands at UNC games and has been part of three different halftime ceremonies at the Dean Dome this year — one for former player Danny Green, one to honor himself and Dean Smith by naming portions of I-40 after each coach, and one, in the first game against NC State, to unveil his banner in the Dean Dome rafters.

When Williams isn’t working more halftimes than unicycling acrobat Red Panda, he’s made appearances at games everywhere from West Virginia to NC Central, catching up with friends still in the coaching business.

It’s tough to imagine a scenario in which the UNC legend makes it through the doors of PNC Arena on Saturday, however, as the Wolfpack looks to even the score with the Tar Heels.

In the first game, the Williams halftime ceremony was the only drama left in the affair as UNC jumped out to an early 10-point lead, extended it to 40-19 and led by 25 at the break on the way to a 20-point win.

In addition to evening the score against the Heels and welcoming first-year UNC coach Hubert Davis to Raleigh — Davis went 1-3 against State in Raleigh as a UNC player — the Pack would like nothing better than to stick a pin in the Tar Heels’ hopes for an NCAA bid.

The Heels were on the right side of a tournament bubble before shooting themselves in the foot with a bad home loss to woeful Pitt last week. Carolina mitigated the damage with a Quad I win at Virginia Tech over the weekend.

UNC held serve earlier this week, beating Louisville and avoiding what would have been another bad loss, even though the win over a Quad III foe didn’t add to the Tar Heel resume.

Now Davis and the Heels will travel to face State in the hopes of making a statement with a Quad II win over the Pack.

“They are a very talented, very good basketball team, terrific coaching staff, and they play extremely well at home,” Davis said. “It’s late February. We’ve talked about this as a team, this isn’t the time to take a deep breath, to relax, to take your foot off the gas pedal. Actually, it’s the exact opposite. It’s (time) to floor it, in terms of our preparation and our practice and our play.”

Not that making life miserable for the Tar Heels isn’t enough motivation, but State has plenty more at stake.

An NCAA bid is off the table, save for an ACC Tournament title. State enters the week at 11-16, 4-12 in the conference. The Wolfpack snapped a six-game losing streak last Tuesday with a 76-61 win over Georgia Tech in what coach Kevin Keatts called the team’s most complete performance of the season. In a display of buzzard’s luck, the Pack then had a momentum-sapping eight days off before playing Boston College after press time in a tune-up for the Carolina game.

“If you’re playing well, you want to continue to play,” Keatts said, “but we need some rest. I do know we don’t have that much depth and our guys were tired. The week before we played a lot of games, but after playing that well on both ends, I would have rather played again the next day.”

With State’s disappointing record this year, the question of Keatts’ future with the program has come up. NC State athletic director Boo Corrigan gave him a vote of confidence last week, appearing on local sports radio and declaring, “Kevin Keatts is our guy. Kevin Keatts is our basketball coach and I support Kevin Keatts.”

Corrigan cited a season-ending injury to Manny Bates that deprived Keatts and the Wolfpack of their scoring and rim-protecting presence inside.

“Everyone wants to win more, and I’m not gonna shy away from that,” Corrigan said. “But you look at the effort our guys are playing with and the connectivity with Keatts and the coaching staff and how hard he’s coaching. Obviously, it’s a tough time, but he’s our guy and our coach and we look forward to brighter days ahead.”

Of course, the days would get brighter quickly with a win over the hated Heels on Saturday.