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#12 UNC at #15 N.C. State: Game Preview

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A rather early edition of this in-state public school clash has more hype than usual and promises to be a tough matchup

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at North Carolina State Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been a long time since UNC and N.C. State played each other when both were ranked. According to Joe Giglio of the News and Observer, it’s been almost 13 years since both were in the top 25, and about 15 since both were in the top 15:

As you can see, Roy Williams is undefeated against NCSU when both teams are ranked, but those games were all last decade; Williams lost just one game against the Pack from the beginning of his head coaching career until 2013. With three games since then going the way of the team in Raleigh, this game doesn’t seem like nearly as much of a foregone conclusion as those did, even the two out of the three where State was ranked higher than UNC. It’s hard to tell who will be favored in this one; N.C. State’s home court advantage gives them a slight edge in ESPN’s BPI Matchup Predictor, but UNC sits comfortably ahead of NCSU in most analytic rankings (UNC is 8 and NCSU 18 by the Massey Composite). College basketball betting odds don’t seem to be coming out until the day of, so we’ll keep you in suspense until tomorrow morning. In the meantime, let’s check out what the Wolfpack is bringing to the party tomorrow night.

A quick perusal of N.C. State’s stats and analytics tell us... that they look quite a bit like UNC. They play fast, ranking 15th in the country in tempo with nearly 76 possessions per game. They crash the offensive glass, ranking 5th in the country by grabbing 39.2% of available offensive rebounds, and they’re pretty good on the defensive end as well, grabbing 75% of the boards on that end for 49th in the country. UNC, for comparison, is 5th in the country in tempo (78.5 possessions per game), 26th in offensive rebounding percentage (35.4%), and 9th in defensive rebounding (77%). With rebounding and tempo being two of the primary tenets of Roy Williams’ philosophy, in some ways this matchup, on paper, looks kind of like this:

I’m sorry.

The teams also approach the three-point shot similarly: About a third of both team’s attempted field goals are threes, with nearly all (85% for State, 88% for UNC) of them being assisted attempts, per Hoop Math. Neither has embraced the D’Antoni revolution, is what I’m trying to say. Both teams are very good at defending the three, with UNC allowing just 31.3% of long balls in and NCSU one-upping them with an eye-popping 28.4%. On the offensive end, some difference starts to creep in: While UNC is pretty good at the deep ball, shooting a respectable 36.8%, NCSU is excellent from beyond the arc, making them at a 40.9% rate.

Point guard Markell Johnson is a big part of that for the Wolfpack, with an absolutely insane start to the season. He has made 28 threes on 55 attempts for a 51% rate. You expect that to regress at some point this season, but he’s as hot as anybody in the country and, as a bonus, absolutely murdered UNC in two games last season (12/23 FG, 3/6 3FG, 20 assists, 32 points). He isn’t the assist machine he was last year, down to 4.2 assists per game from last year’s 7.3, but he’s more than made up for that with his own scoring up to 12.4 points per game from about 9 while becoming lethal both around the rim and from deep, and by reducing his turnovers per game to just under 2. So far, he’s been one of the best guards in the ACC, and Coby White, Seventh Woods, and maybe even Kenny Williams are going to have a tough task ahead of them in trying to contain him.

Johnson is ably supported by a group of long, tall, wings, the position group that everybody knew would be good for the Wolfpack. Torin Dorn is one of the better rebounding guards in the conference with 6.5 per game in addition to leading the Pack with 14.5 points per contest, Braxton Beverly is the Pack’s other real sharpshooter with a nice 39% hit rate on 69 tries, Wilmington transfer C.J. Bryce has hit 59% of his field goal attempts this season and been effective from all three levels, and Utah transfer Devon Daniels has struggled at times, but is another good rebounder and just had one of his best games of the season against Miami.

For such a good rebounding team, State is rather thin in the frontcourt, starting just one big (senior Wyatt Walker, grad transfer from Sanford) with freshmen D.J. Funderburk and Jericole Hellems in rotation. Of those, Hellems is a bit of a stretch forward while the other two primarily play around the basket, but none of them are really focal points of the NCSU offense, ranking 6th, 7th, and 8th in field goal attempts per game with only Hellems really approaching the usage his peers on the perimeter have. Walker and Funderburk are okay rim protectors, but the interior certainly seems to be the Wolfpack’s weakness. Particularly with Sterling Manley not playing for the third consecutive game, this, again, mirrors UNC.

Where the two teams diverge might be in team chemistry. UNC may have seemed off in this aspect during some key moments this season (Michigan and Kentucky games, I’m looking at you), but overall, they’ve been pretty good. They have assisted on 60.6% of made baskets, 26th in the country, and have just a middling turnover percentage at 15%. Their A:TO ratio as a team sits above 1.4, good again for top-30 in the country. N.C. State, on the other hand, is either still figuring things out or plays a bit more of a selfish brand of basketball than UNC. Fewer than 55% of their made baskets are assisted, their turnover percentage is 16.1 (that might not seem too different from UNC’s, but it’s the difference between #79 and #154 in the country), and their team A:TO is 1.28. Those numbers aren’t terrible, but they’re not good, either, and display a clear offensive weakness for the Wolfpack insofar as playing as a team. Tight man-to-man, particularly on-ball defense seems to be the way to go against State, which is good news for UNC. Johnson is a pick-and-roll threat and a half, so there will have to be several plans on what to do with screens involving him, but for the most part, this is a game where UNC’s defensive philosophies seem well-suited to the task at hand.

For a fast team, it doesn’t look like N.C. State really takes advantage of transition as much as they should. Just 30% of their field goal attempts come on transition possessions compared to 46% for UNC and they frequently use more than 10 seconds of play clock, especially coming off made baskets. They’re good in transition whether they get to the rim or shoot jump shots, but don’t really try and get quick buckets that much. This change-of-speeds philosophy also plays into UNC’s defensive hands a little bit, as the Heels have struggled with transition defense this season but been, for the most part, great in the halfcourt.

And finally, the two teams differ in their ability to defend. Like I said earlier, NCSU is a very, very good team at defending the perimeter, but all of that seems to collapse inside the arc. NCSU is one of the most foul-prone teams in the country, averaging 20 fouls per game and allowing opponents a combined 39% free throw rate, or FTA/FGA. Their guards play a lot of catch-up defense if their man is able to penetrate, which should be an area of emphasis for UNC. The Heels are a much better and more disciplined team on defense, particularly inside the arc, and this may make a difference in the game.

So what we have are two teams with a lot of similarities and a few differences, but very few aspects that are polar opposites. It promises to be an absolute barn-burner of a game, with both teams averaging upwards of 89 points per contest. In the end, though, I think UNC’s superior team chemistry and discipline, combined by closing the gap more on NCSU’s advantages than NCSU does on the Heels’ advantages, will win out. And Roy Williams’ record against the Pack, while not as sterling as it once was, is still formidable enough that I won’t discount it.

Prediction: UNC 94, NCSU 88