February 23, 2015

An efficient offense is one of the reasons North Carolina is off to its best start in ACC play in 15 seasons, but coach Roy Williams wouldn't mind seeing some improvement on the defensive end.

What better way to start than shutting down the league's leading scorer?

The fifth-ranked Tar Heels seek a ninth straight victory when Anthony "Cat" Barber and struggling North Carolina State visit Chapel Hill on Saturday.

North Carolina (15-2, 4-0) hasn't started this well in the conference since winning its first 11 in 2000-01, three years before Williams took over. The Tar Heels rank second in the nation in points per game at 87.5 and seventh in field-goal percentage at 50.2.

They've shot at least 50 percent in five straight, including last Saturday's 84-73 win at Syracuse.

''It means we're 4-0 this year with this year's team. That's what it means,'' Williams said. ''All that other stuff is nice. The players noticed it. They said something about it in the locker room. I didn't realize it."

Brice Johnson had 39 points and 23 rebounds in a 106-90 win at Florida State on Jan. 4 before finishing with 16 points and a career-high eight assists against the Orange.

Justin Jackson also scored 16 for North Carolina, which ranks first in adjusted offense according to kenpom.com. Kennedy Meeks returned after missing seven games with a bruised left knee and had eight points in 14 minutes. Marcus Paige went 1 of 8 from the floor and finished with three points, but the preseason ACC co-player of the year added eight assists.

Williams is more focused on the Tar Heels putting together a full effort defensively. They've allowed a 20-point scorer in each of the last three and are allowing an average of 71.8 points, which ranks 13th in the 15-team ACC.

Barber is averaging an ACC-best 22.5 points, including 26.0 over his previous seven games before finishing with 16 in Wednesday's 85-78 loss to Florida State. He'll certainly be looking to expose the North Carolina defense as much as possible.

"The last couple of games, we've had players who have gotten a lot of points against us in the first half," UNC guard Joel Berry told the team's official website. "We've had to put an emphasis on guarding them better in the second half. But we know we're going to have to play that way defensively for the entire game. We can't make silly mistakes. We haven't played our best defensive game yet."

N.C. State (10-7, 0-4) had dropped 21 of the previous 23 meetings and 11 straight in Chapel Hill before Barber scored 16 points there in a 58-46 victory in the last meeting Feb. 24.

Pulling off another upset appears to be a more difficult task. The Wolfpack are off to their worst ACC start since dropping their first eight in 1996-97 and have shot 37.2 percent from the field during a four-game skid.

Each of the first three defeats came by five points or fewer, though. Abdul-Malik Abu scored a career-high 21 points and added 13 rebounds against the Seminoles, but N.C. State's 12 turnovers were its most in nine games.

Picking up that first league victory could be a chore. After this contest, the Wolfpack play at No. 20 Pittsburgh on Tuesday before hosting ninth-ranked Duke next Saturday.

''We have stretches where we're really good,'' coach Mark Gottfried said. ''We have stretches where we're not so good. That's just part of a young group growing up, but you've got to grow up at some point.''

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