North Carolina Tar Heels vs. NC State Wolfpack Pick & Prediction MARCH 16th 2024

WASHINGTON — This time a year ago, North Carolina was wondering if it would crack the NCAA Tournament on Selection Sunday. The Tar Heels didn’t, becoming the first team ranked No. 1 in the preseason Associated Press poll to miss the field since it expanded to 64 teams.

And what a difference a year makes.

North Carolina hit the reset button in the offseason, reshuffling its roster after a disappointing campaign. Those pieces have proven to mesh, and now the No. 4 Tar Heels are eyeing their first Atlantic Coast Conference tournament title since 2016 when they face 10th-seeded North Carolina State on Saturday.

“Everybody expected this to be Carolina and Duke. Well, it’s Carolina and NC State,” Wolfpack coach Kevin Keatts said with a smile. “We play pretty good basketball at NC State, too.”

It will be the seventh time in the history of the ACC tournament that UNC and rival NC State have met in the title game. The Heels are 4-2 all-time against the Wolfpack in such games, last beating them for the crown in 2007.

Unlike a year ago, UNC (27-6) is not in a position in which it must worry about cracking the NCAA Tournament field. At stake now for the Heels is seeding.

But that’s all in the future. The immediate task at hand for the Tar Heels is winning what would be their 19th ACC crown.

“It would mean a lot to this program just because we haven’t won it in a couple of years,” guard RJ Davis said. “It just shows how much of a team we are and how resilient we are. We set goals at the beginning of this year, and for us to be one more game away means a lot, but the job is not finished. Just got to take it one game at a time.”

Davis, the ACC Player of the Year, saved the day for the Tar Heels in the semifinals against fourth-seeded Pitt on Friday. He scored just six points in the first half as UNC trailed by two at the break, then he exploded for 19 points in the second half to power UNC to a 72-65 victory.

Armando Bacot’s play was key, too, as he piled up 19 points and 11 rebounds.

“It’s not just tonight,” UNC coach Hubert Davis said. “RJ and Armando and Harrison (Ingram), they’ve shown up the entire season.”

This run for NC State (21-14) is reminiscent of its 1987 season, when it lived up to its “Cardiac Pack” nickname by winning two overtime games in the ACC tournament before beating UNC by a single point for the championship. That was the last time NC State won the ACC tournament.

After finishing their regular season on a four-game losing streak, the Wolfpack have now won four games in four days to advance to the title game. Since the tournament expanded to its current format, no team that played on its first day had ever advanced to the championship, until now.

“I’ve never worried about fatigue with our team. I really haven’t. I haven’t even talked about it,” Keatts said. “I’ve got 100 percent buy-in, and those guys are buying in and they’re working. I’m coaching them, but they’re doing all the heavy lifting.”

Along the way, NC State beat Louisville, Syracuse, No. 11 Duke and Virginia to make the championship game. Against the Cavaliers on Friday, the Wolfpack needed an improbable and ridiculous buzzer-beating 3-pointer from Michael O’Connell to push the game into overtime. Then, DJ Burns went to work, scoring seven of his 19 points in the extra period.

Burns is averaging 14.0 points per game in the tournament.

UNC beat NC State in both regular-season meetings this, winning by 13 points in Chapel Hill and nine in Raleigh.

The Tar Heels and Wolfpack last met in the ACC tournament in 2012, when UNC beat NC State in the semifinals.

Can NC State’s unlikely run continue by winning its fifth game in five days?

“Whatever happens, we’re battle tested,” NC State guard Casey Morsell said. “Move on to the next one and have a short memory.”

–Mitchell Northam, Field Level Media

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