North Carolina State has added a talented freshman to a starting front line that already featured preseason Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year C.J. Leslie and league-leading rebounder Richard Howell.
It could give the Wolfpack a major advantage on the boards against North Carolina's revamped small lineup.
Coach Mark Gottfried said he planned to keep forward T.J. Warren in the starting lineup for Saturday's rivalry game in Chapel Hill following the rookie's huge performance a win against Florida State earlier this week. Gottfried is hoping Warren's second straight start provides another jolt, especially when it comes to snatching down the rebounds that can get the Wolfpack off and running.
"I have felt like our rebounding hasn't been nearly as good as it should be," Gottfried said Friday. "Hopefully that's something we can continue to get better at. I think it affects a lot of things we do, so we have to be a good rebounding team."
Warren responded with season-highs of 31 points and 13 rebounds in his fifth start during Tuesday night's 84-66 win against the Seminoles. He also helped N.C. State dominate the boards 45-21, including a 21-6 edge on the offensive glass and a 29-6 edge in second-chance points.
The Wolfpack had been outrebounded for three straight games before the FSU game. And Gottfried sensed his team has occasionally been too dependent on the relentless Howell, who is averaging 10.9 rebounds and has pulled down at least 14 six times this year.
"I feel like we can be a good rebounding team regardless of who we play," Gottfried said. "Our whole team, we've got to find ways to make sure collectively we're a better rebounding team. That starts everything for us. I think at times it's hurt our ability to run because we're down there thinking, 'OK, Richard's going to get that one' and we've got guys four steps, five steps down the floor. That hasn't been a good thing."
The 6-foot-8, 223-pound Warren certainly can help in that area considering he's versatile enough to tussle inside or roam the perimeter for the Wolfpack (19-7, 8-5 ACC). His emergence will only make things tougher for a UNC team that will already have its hands full Leslie or Howell inside after switching to a four-guard lineup.
"I feel like it helps us tremendously, especially on the rebounding," Howell said. "But not only that, just getting the ball on the inside in the post-up position just because of our size is something we can utilize. So going into the game, we're going to use that to our full advantage."
N.C. State took a 42-32 rebounding advantage in last month's 91-83 win, a game that saw the Wolfpack lead by 28 points midway through the second half on the way to snapping a 13-game losing streak in the series. It was only the third time in 21 meetings that the Wolfpack outrebounded the Tar Heels (18-8, 8-5) since Roy Williams took over before the 2003-04 season.
After a 26-point loss at Miami, Williams moved 6-5 sophomore guard P.J. Hairston into the starting lineup as a 4-man and shortened his rotation largely to six or seven players. The move has allowed the Tar Heels to spread the floor with Hairston and Reggie Bullock able to knock down 3-pointers while opening up the inside for 6-9 forward James Michael McAdoo.
The Tar Heels responded to the change by playing with improved energy and taking Duke to the final minute in a 73-68 road loss, then scored 93 points in a win against typically stingy Virginia followed by a 70-58 win at Georgia Tech on Tuesday night.
Williams has sounded willing to stay with the smaller lineup as long as the Tar Heels hung with opponents on the boards. His team has been outrebounded in two of the past three games, but it will be a much bigger worry against Leslie and Howell, in particular.
"They've got two big inside players that take the ball to the basket against big guys (and) are really going to take the ball to the basket against little guys," Williams said. "So that something we're concerned about."
Williams said he expected Hairston would match up with the 6-9 Leslie, McAdoo would start on Howell and leave the 6-7 Bullock defending Warren. That might force Williams to play young big men Desmond Hubert and Brice Johnson more after cutting their minutes in the new rotation.
Freshman center Joel James has been cleared to return from a concussion that sidelined him three games, but it's unclear if his conditioning is good enough to play against N.C. State.
Hairston, averaging nearly 21 points since the change, didn't sound deterred by matching up with bigger opponents for the immediate future.
"That was definitely not part of the plan but I just do what coach asks me to do," Hairston said. "... I'm ready for any opponent. I just move forward and do my job."