Zeller is making a push for first-team All-ACC

DEAN SMITH CENTER/CHAPEL HILL — Never trust the talking heads. The buildup to tonight’s contest between North Carolina and N.C. State received unusual media fanfare given the Tar Heels’ dominance during the Roy Williams era, but this one was supposed to be different.

After all, Carolina embarrassed itself at Florida State a couple weeks ago, and the Wolfpack arrived in Chapel Hill the proud possessors of a 4-1 ACC record. Enthusiasm understandably has risen since Mark Gottfried arrived in Raleigh — and the ‘Pack will welcome a tremendous recruiting class into the program next year — but none of that could stave off a 74-55 beating versus the Heels.

UNC competed in spirited fashion from the opening tip, overpowering State’s smallish frontline to win the rebounding battle 48-26. Any hope the ‘Pack had of winning likely died when Richard Howell landed in foul trouble in the first half and ultimately fouled out in the second.

Tyler Zeller’s torrid stretch continues apace. The senior big man appears to have regained the form he attained during last season’s NCAA Tournament, and his 21-point, 17-rebound performance versus State spearheaded Carolina’s inside dominance. He scored quickly and efficiently, hitting 8-for-11 from the floor.

His frontcourt partner, John Henson, contributed nine points, 10 rebounds and five blocks, suffocating Wolfpack forward C.J. Leslie (3-for-12 field goals) and helping limit the Pack to just 37 percent shooting from the floor.

Carolina’s point guard situation also came into focus. Kendall Marshall played 34 minutes and handed out 11 assists, and freshman Stilman White was able to provide five valuable reserve minutes to give Marshall a breather. With Dexter Strickland out for the season due to an ACL tear, White’s ability to advance the ball upcourt, initiate the offense and defend his counterpart will be critical to UNC’s postseason chances.

Roy Williams said after the game that he was pleased by his team’s defense and concentration on Wolfpack shooter Scott Wood, who converted just 4-for-12 en route to 11 points.

Thinking ahead, what can State do to perform more competitively in Raleigh? The Pack must create sets for Woods to get open looks, and somehow, someway, they’ll have to narrow UNC’s rebounding advantage significantly. That said, the teams don’t meet again until February 21, so who knows where the respective squads will be positioned by then.

The Heels host Georgia Tech on Sunday evening, and State hosts Virginia on Saturday night. Click here to view the UNC/NCSU box score.