CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina State senior C.J. Williams has spent his career trying to reverse the Wolfpack's struggles, so he couldn't resist the temptation to take a quick peek at the Atlantic Coast Conference standings earlier this week.
There it was: N.C. State tied atop the league — not to mention ahead of No. 7 North Carolina heading into Thursday's game.
"You look and you're tied for first and you're excited about that, but it comes down to playing basketball again," Williams said. "It's all basketball regardless of what the standings have to say."
Maybe, but there's no denying that the Wolfpack's improvement under first-year coach Mark Gottfried has added some zip to the longtime rivalry. N.C. State (15-5, 4-1 ACC) is off to its best ACC start in six years and entered the week tied with Duke and Florida State for first, while the Tar Heels (16-3, 3-1) sat just behind.
Seeing the Wolfpack ahead of the Tar Heels in the standings is an unusual sight considering how UNC has owned the rivalry since Roy Williams returned to his alma mater. N.C. State hasn't finished ahead of the Tar Heels in the ACC since Williams' first season in 2004 and hasn't beaten North Carolina in four years.
North Carolina has won 10 straight meetings by an average of nearly 16 points since the Wolfpack's last win in 2007. Yet point guard Kendall Marshall offered up a head-scratcher when asked about the Wolfpack's strong start.
"Right now, it seems like we're the underdogs," Marshall said Wednesday. "They're tied for first in the ACC and we're not."
The Wolfpack lost by 20 points in Chapel Hill and by 12 in Raleigh last year, Sidney Lowe's final season with the program he led to a national championship as a player. But while Gottfried cautions that his program hasn't arrived, he's at least pumped the brakes on its steady slide since last reaching the NCAA tournament in 2006.
The Wolfpack won three of four to start the league schedule, then won at Miami over the weekend to start a tough stretch with five of seven on the road. The offense has balance with all five starters averaging at least 12 points per game, and N.C. State has lost just once since falling by 12 to then-No. 1 Syracuse on Dec. 17.
N.C. State hasn't won in Chapel Hill since 2003, but Gottfried isn't focused on the Wolfpack's run of futility and said he hasn't even watched film from last year's meetings.
"I don't really want to get caught up in how this team played last year," Gottfried said. "We're a different team. I don't know that that does me a lot of good, to be quite honest. I think sometimes that can actually cloud your judgment a little bit. We want to approach it and prepare for this year's game — our team, their current team — and be as prepared as we can be."
That could be a little tougher than usual.
It will be North Carolina's first game since losing starting guard Dexter Strickland to a season-ending knee injury, robbing the team of its backup point guard and best perimeter defender. The injury means a different look for UNC, with sophomore outside shooter Reggie Bullock expected to start and freshman reserve Stilman White likely seeing more minutes as the only point guard behind Marshall.
The roster shuffle comes nearly a year after point guard Larry Drew II quit the team without warning after losing his starting job to Marshall, which forced Strickland to take on more ballhandling duties. The Tar Heels responded by winning the ACC regular-season crown and getting within a game of the Final Four.
"Everybody's got to raise their level of play," Williams said. "Everybody's got to raise their level of consistency of play, and be able make some changes to make up for those things that we lose from Dexter. And then, figure out a way to give us something else."
Also Wednesday, the school revealed it had made an error in listing North Carolina's longest home winning streak as 32 games from 1926-29. The school said the current 29-game streak is the longest in program history, including a win at Carmichael Arena against William & Mary in the first round of the NIT in 2010.
Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter @aaronbeardap