Sunday’s showdown between NC State and North Carolina was important for obvious reasons.

But there’s another, just as meaningful matchup between in-state rivals coming up on the schedule at PNC Arena.

And it’s not the actual game between the Wolfpack and Wake Forest.

The outcome of that contest will have a major impact on the postseason scenarios for both teams, to be sure. But the most intriguing competition on the court Wednesday night promises to be the battle within the battle between the ACC’s top 2 scorers.

While UNC’s Armando Bacot, Miami’s Isaiah Wong and a handful of others might still have something to say about it, the faceoff between State’s Terquavion Smith and the Deacons’ Tyree Appleby could be the tipping point in determining this year’s conference Player of the Year.

Their season stats are remarkably similar.

Appleby is averaging a league-leading 18.48 points per game while Smith is a fraction behind at 18.07. Appleby has a slight edge in assists at 6.33-4.46 while Smith’s assist-to-turnover ratio is a hair better. They’re both shooting around 35% from 3-point range while recording just under 2 steals and 34 minutes per game.

As interchangeable as their numbers might be, their stories couldn’t be any more different.

Smith, a 6-4 sophomore from Farmville, NC, is a self-professed lifelong State fan who has dreamed of playing for the Wolfpack since a young age.

His love for the school played a role in his decision to return for a 2nd college season, despite being projected as a likely 1st-round pick in last year’s NBA Draft. It’s a devotion that nearly cost him when he suffered injuries that weren’t as bad as they first looked following scary fall at UNC’s Smith Center.

“You’re talking about a good kid who has given everything he could to NC State,” Wolfpack coach Kevin Keatts said.

Appleby, by contrast, is ballin’ good in the neighborhood in his 3rd college location after splitting his first 4 seasons between Cleveland State and Florida. He is the latest free agent success story produced by Wake’s “Transfer Portal Whisperer” Steve Forbes. 

The 6-1 senior is bidding to become the 2nd straight veteran 1-and-done Deacon to win ACC Player of the Year honors. And his resume is almost identical to that of 2022 winner Alondes Williams.

Williams barely missed becoming the first player in conference history to lead the league in scoring and assists in the same season – tying Virginia’s Reece Beekman for the top spot in assists at 5.2 per game and falling less than a point below Syracuse’s Buddy Boeheim in scoring at 18.5.

Appleby leads the ACC in both categories.

“He’s a gamer,” Forbes said. “Ty’s got ice in his veins. He’s a competitor. I wouldn’t want anybody else with the ball in their hands but him.”

The literal interpretation of that statement came in a recent win against UNC. 

With the Tar Heels rapidly eroding a once-commanding 26-point lead down to single digits in the final minutes, Appleby made sure the ball was in his hands every time his team inbounded it. The strategy forced UNC to foul him and resulted in an ACC-record 28 free throw attempts. He made 23, also a league record, to help Wake hold on for a 92-85 victory.

Appleby finished the game with a career-high 35 points and 11 assists in that game, missing out on a triple-double by only 3 rebounds.

Smith has also had his share of big games for the Wolfpack. He has twice topped the 30-point mark while reaching the 1,000 career point plateau in just his 58th game, faster than anyone else in the ACC in the past 15 years.

In their 1 previous head-to-head showdown, the 2 Player of the Year contenders played to a virtual standoff.

Although Appleby outscored Smith 18-16 in the Wolfpack’s 78-77 win at Winston-Salem on Jan. 28, he did it in 19 more minutes of action. Smith, limited with foul trouble, went 3-of-4 from 3-point range while Appleby was just 1-of-6.

Those performances highlight the biggest difference between the high-scoring guards, beyond their personal stories. 

Because Smith’s surrounding cast is deeper and more talented than Appleby’s, as illustrated Sunday by the 2nd-half dominance of teammates Jarkel Joiner and DJ Burns, State isn’t nearly as dependent on his production.

At 21-7 overall (11-6 ACC), Smith’s Wolfpack has also fared slightly better than Appleby’s Deacons, who are currently on the wrong side of the NCAA Tournament bubble at 17-10 (9-7).

How much weight will team success carry in the individual award process?

The jury is still out on that one, since the criteria tends to change from year-to-year depending on who’s voting.

And there are other factors to consider, as well. Not the least of them is the sentiment to reward UNC’s double-double machine Bacot after finishing a close 2nd to Williams a year ago.

Either way, these things usually end up being decided on the court.

For Smith and Appleby, closing arguments begin Wednesday.