First Person: Uh-Oh
It's been tempting to gloat a little lately, what with Carolina on a three-game Atlantic Coast Conference winning streak and a trip on Saturday to NC State. The Wolfpack has lost two out of three, fell at Wake Forest on Tuesday, and then went through Twittergate on Wednesday when State players may or may not have endorsed a criticism of head coach Mark Gottfried.
Could there possibly be a better time to play NC State?
Here's the bad news: the Wolfpack has Carolina right where they want them. Some programs thrive on consistency and predictability. NC State basketball, at least for the time period that I've been alive, thrives on tumult. Saturday's game can be phrased quite simply:
Journey with me, if you will, back to the winter of 1992, a time when this was the actual top song in America (as a special bonus, this version of the song is from the Arsenio Hall Show, which catapulted to popularity on the backs of the cerebral catchphrase, "Woof, woof, woof"):
Color Me Badd wasn't the only thing that was hard to watch in February of 1992. So was the NC State Wolfpack, which surrounded Tom Gugliotta with Curtis Marshall, Donnie Seale, Kevin Thompson and Mark Davis in the starting lineup (the fact that I can remember all their first names without prompting, but can't recall what time to pick up our daughter from school, is one of those things my wife will never understand--but I mean, come on, who doesn't remember Curtis Marshall?). That State team defeated Carolina on Jan. 22 at Reynolds Coliseum, the prototypical State-goes-off-from-3-point-range-to-win-a-game-they-had-no-business-winning game. Gugliotta had 36 points and hit 8-of-14 three-pointers, an achievement that was his career highlight until he received the prestigious 2012 Wolfpack Unlimited Award in honor of his ability to get thrown out of a game by Karl Hess.
But that wasn't the game you need to worry about. Deftly coached by Les Robinson, State then proceeded to lose nine straight games, including a home defeat to Middle Tennessee State. That sent them, in total disarray, to the Smith Center to face the nationally fourth-ranked Tar Heels. Carolina was hot. State was arctic. Sound familiar?
You've probably guessed what happened next: State won, 99-94, behind 25 points from Mark Davis, who hit 7-of-10 three-pointers and so burned himself in my brain that I can still picture him wearing his red number-4 jersey.
These miraculous State wins were a semi-regular feature of the 1990s, a time period when the Wolfpack decided to replace the lovable yet poor coaching of Robinson with the slow-down philosophy of Herb Sendek, whose electric personality most closely resembled State legend Jim Valvano in that both utilized oxygen to breathe. In 1995, Carolina sent a team that included Rasheed Wallace, Jerry Stackhouse and Jeff McInnis to Reynolds, and lost 80-70 because of 24 points from someone named Lakista McCuller, who celebrated by shooting 6-for-20 in his next two games combined. Bryant Feggins, who played at State so long that his career actually began under Norm Sloan, grabbed seven rebounds. The Wolfpack finished 4-12 in the league. Carolina went to the Final Four.
The lone loss to State in the Roy Williams era even came when the Wolfpack was struggling. In January of 2007, State had lost four of six games, and the Tar Heels were ranked third in the country and riding a five-game winning streak. Carolina started Tyler Hansbrough, Brandan Wright, Wayne Ellington, Reyshawn Terry and Ty Lawson, four of whom are still playing in the NBA. State started Engin Atsur, Brandon Costner, Ben McCauley, Gavin Grant and Courtney Fells. You know what happened: State won, 83-79, prompting an enthusiastic court-storming that motivated Hansbrough for the rest of his career against the Wolfpack.
Over the days and hours to come, you'll read plenty about how Saturday's game is a meeting of two teams that could be headed in different directions. It's not. It's a meeting of one team that's in the perfect situation to face its most hated rival...and the Tar Heels.