Tar Heels looking for health, urgency as Wolfpack come to town

The rivals are on pace to face off in a Quad I showdown

UNC forward Jalen Washington has overcome injuries that slowed him since high school and become a backup to star forward Armando Bacot. (Timothy D. Easley / AP Photo)

CHAPEL HILL — Assuming they both hold serve early in the week, UNC and NC State could help each other out on Saturday afternoon.

The Tar Heels are a “disappointing for us” 12-6 on the year and 4-3 in ACC play, including a 3-2 record in the last five games. But when State comes to the Smith Center this weekend for a true road game, the Tar Heels will be a Quad I opponent for the Wolfpack.

The quadrant system is the way that the NCAA Tournament selection committee addresses strength of schedule. State is currently 2-3 against Quad I, with both wins — over Duke and at Virginia Tech — coming in the last three games.

State stands at 14-4, 4-3 in the ACC and will also be a Quad I opponent for UNC, which is 1-6 in those games so far this season, with an overtime win over Ohio State as the only feather in its cap.

It’s the first time since January 2019 that the rivalry game will be a Quad I game for both teams. That’s assuming, of course, that both teams win their Tuesday night games, which took place after press time.

The Tar Heels won that previous Quad I showdown, in Raleigh, which is no surprise. Roy Williams always seemed to draw a light blue circle around the State games on the schedule, and the Hall of Fame coach was dominant against the Wolfpack during his time in Chapel Hill, going 33-5.

During his rookie year as head coach last season, Hubert Davis continued the trend, sweeping the Pack with 20- and 10-point wins during the regular season. He’s not ready to be quite as outspoken about his distaste for the guys in red as his predecessor, however, hiding his feelings about the upcoming game behind a screen of coachspeak.

When asked about rivalry games, Davis — who made his name last season with back-to-back wins over Duke in Coach K farewell games — pointed to the fact that the next game on the schedule was Tuesday’s home tilt with Boston College.

“I don’t spend any time with (rivalries),” he said. “I have tremendous respect for all the coaches, programs and universities. I like competing against everybody. It just doesn’t matter. That’s just the way I grew up and was taught: When you cross the line, it’s live action. Whether it’s NC State, College of Charleston, Duke or Ohio State, once you cross over the line, it’s real. The realness doesn’t get higher depending on the opponent. It can’t get any higher. It’s at the highest level for me, always.”

It was suggested that maybe the Tar Heel players feel differently about the upcoming game, to which Davis replied, “I don’t know, and I don’t really care. It’s of no benefit or importance to us.”

That could be because Davis and the Heels have plenty of other issues to take up their attention as the State game looms. Carolina has had an up-and-down season in Davis’ sophomore year on the bench. After starting 5-0 with lackluster wins at home over mid-major foes, Carolina had a four-game losing streak during which Davis questioned his players’ toughness and dedication. A four-game win streak that includes neutral site wins over Ohio State and Michigan seemed to indicate that the ship had been righted, but the recent stretch of two losses in five games followed.

The Tar Heels have been battling injuries during the current rough patch. Pete Nance has missed the last three games with back problems, and Armando Bacot missed all but 80 seconds of the loss at Virginia, although he was able to return for UNC’s next game, a win over Louisville.

The injuries have forced Davis to go to his bench, something he has been reluctant to do in his year and a half as head coach.

“It’s unfortunate to get any type of injury,” he said, “but one of the things is it gives guys the opportunity to get out and play and made us deeper.”

Freshman Seth Trimble has been a regular part of the rotation, and last year’s freshman class of D’Marco Dunn and Dontrez Styles has seen its minutes increase significantly this year. Freshman Jalen Washington, back from an injury that cost him his senior year of high school and the start of his freshman year at UNC, has also entered the rotation as a backup to Bacot.

Regardless of the depth and the improving health of the team, there’s still the problem that Davis has contended with all season — motivation. After a trip to the national championship game last season, Davis has bemoaned an overall lack of urgency and hunger from his players this year. He outlined a conversation he had with the team following the Virginia loss.

“I asked them about a number of different situations throughout the game,” he recalled. “I said, ‘Have you been told what to do? Have you been taught what to do? Are you talented enough to do it?’ They said yes every time. So I said, ‘Then why aren’t you doing it? If you haven’t been told or taught, that’s on me. If you’re not talented enough, tell me. But if you can check those three boxes, there’s no excuse.’ I felt like that hit home.”

There’s no better way to find out if Davis’ words were on target than to test them against the red wave headed to Chapel Hill on Saturday.