The wait is finally over.
North Carolina State and rival North Carolina are meeting in the Wolfpack's ACC opener at noon Saturday at the Dean E. Smith Center in Chapel Hill. NC State has only played UNC five times in its conference season opener out of the 212 meetings between the two teams.
"[The game] is like when you are a little kid going to Disney World, it's where you want to be," NC State redshirt sophomore Brandon Costner said. "It is really exciting going in and playing with a lot of people yelling at you, who really don't want you to win."
NC State (11-3) enters the showdown with a seven-game winning streak, but could be playing without starting shooting guard Courtney Fells and key reserve Dennis Horner, a sophomore small forward. Both players suffered ankle injures this past week.
"It seems like our team is falling apart right now, but we just have to deal with it and play the cards that have been dealt," Costner said.
Trying to get past No. 1-ranked North Carolina (16-0) is difficult even when completely healthy, but in rivalry games, anything can happen.
"We just have to keep playing defense the way we've been playing defense," Costner said. "We definitely have to step it up on offense and play together. I feel like we have enough talent and experience to come out with a win."
NC State didn't start preparing for UNC until Thursday, but the players are well versed with the Tar Heels. The coaching staff joked that the players are sometimes the biggest fans of ACC games.
"I think they welcome the challenges of playing a team that is predominantly going to play you man-to-man and is going to be tough and aggressive," said NC State coach Sidney Lowe, who said he would be sporting the team colors on the sideline.
Five NC State players will be experiencing the rivalry for the first time — redshirt junior Simon Harris, redshirt sophomore Marques Johnson and freshmen J.J. Hickson, Javier Gonzalez and Tracy Smith.
"I'm very excited about it," Harris said. "This is one of the greatest rivalries in sports, let alone college basketball. I can't wait."
"This is my first ACC game, so I'm really looking forward to it," Hickson said. "My teammates have been telling me to get ready mentally. The physical part will take care of itself. We just need to have confidence in ourselves to know that we can win."
The game will also be an interesting test of wills with the Tar Heels preferring to run at every opportunity while the Wolfpack favor a halfcourt, pound it in style, featuring Hickson and junior center Ben McCauley.
"We don't have that jet like [injured point guard] Farnold [Degand] in there right now, but we're still going to look to push the ball ahead and see if we can get some easy baskets," Lowe said. "They [UNC] can really run one through five, they run. They do a nice job. What makes them so tough is they just play the game. They push the ball up the floor, and then they're so smart that they read situations, they just play where you don't have to call a set."
North Carolina preview
ACC — North Carolina State (11-3) at North Carolina (16-0, 1-0 ACC)
Game time: Saturday, Jan. 12, Noon — Dean E. Smith Center, Chapel Hill, N.C.
PG — 10 Javi Gonzalez (6-0, Fr., 1.9 ppg, 1.5 rpg, 0.9 apg)
SG — 15 Trevor Ferguson (6-5, Soph., 1.0 ppg, 0.2 rpg, 0.2 apg) or 4 Courtney Fells (6-5, Jr., 8.9 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 1.0 apg)
SF — 11 Gavin Grant (6-8, Sr., 13.5 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 2.9 apg)
PF — 33 Brandon Costner (6-9, Soph., 10.9 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 2.4 apg)
C — 1 J.J. Hickson (6-9, Fr., 16.5 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 1.8 bpg)
PG — 5 Ty Lawson (5-11, Soph., 13.5 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 5.7 apg, 2.1 spg)
SG — 22 Wayne Ellington (6-4, Soph., 18.1 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 1.8 apg)
SF — 1 Marcus Ginyard (6-5, Jr., 6.9 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 2.1 apg)
PF — 21 Deon Thompson (6-8, Soph., 8.3 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 1.3 bpg)
C — 50 Tyler Hansbrough (6-9, Jr., 21.8 ppg, 9.8 rpg, 0.8 apg)
Scouting North Carolina
Location: Chapel Hill, N.C.
Nickname: Tar Heels
2006-2007 record: 31-7 overall, 11-5 ACC
2007 postseason: Lost 96-84 to Georgetown in the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament
Coach: Roy Williams, 122-30 in five years at North Carolina, 540-131 overall in 20 years
The all-time series with NC State: UNC leads 136-75
Last meeting: UNC won 89-80 in the ACC Tournament title game
North Carolina: The Tar Heels are 66-22 against the Wolfpack in Chapel Hill ... Hansbrough has scored 20 points or more in 12 games, and his season-low is 12 points against Clemson on Jan. 6. He has had double digits in rebounds in eight games, and free throws made in five games ... Ellington followed up his breakout 36-point game against Clemson with 19 points against UNC-Asheville. He has scored 20 points or more in five games and has only been in single digits once when he scored five Valparaiso ... Junior small forward Danny Green is averaging 14.0 points off the bench, and has only started one game. He has scored 20 points twice and been in double digits in points, 11 times.
NC State: A pair of NC State players are question marks for the game. Fells and sophomore small forward Dennis Horner both suffered ankle injuries this past week. Horner got injured in practice prior to the Presbyterian game. Fells rolled his ankle against North Carolina Central ... If Fells doesn't play, Ferguson or redshirt junior Simon Harris would likely start. Harris would start at forward and Grant would slide at shooting guard ... NC State is 31-23 all-time in ACC openers and it is only the fifth time the Wolfpack have opened up against UNC. NCSU is also 5-24 all-time against No. 1-ranked foes, including 3-8 against North Carolina.