Virginia and N.C. State meet tonight in Raleigh for the second time this season. To preview the game and what to watch for, we asked some questions of Backing the Pack, SB Nation's N.C. State blog. Be sure to bounce over to their site to read our answers to their questions as well.
STL: It's been a curious season for the Wolfpack, with both a 12-point throttling of Duke and losses to Wofford and Wake Forest. What's the reason behind the up-and-down play?
BTP: I don't think there's a specific reason behind it, I think that's just how it goes when you have a team that is pretty good but not great (or really bad). Occasionally they're going to look like world-beaters, and other times they'll get outscored by 20 points in a half by Wake Forest. The range in performance level is wide, which is frustrating at times but such is life for an NCAA tournament bubble-caliber team.
STL: When we previewed the Pack back in November, I said that the team's success would probably ride on the shoulders of Cat Barber and Ralston Turner. How would you grade those guys as we turn toward the season's home stretch? Whose play will be most important over the closing months?
BTP: Barber's development has been slower than we would prefer, and until recently, I was wondering if his offensive game was ever going to come around this season. Then he went and scored 20+ in back-to-back games. The question is, particularly with his outside shooting, were those two games a blip, or can he continue to be a more assertive and effective contributor down the stretch?
When Barber has disappeared from games, it's forced Trevor Lacey to play more at the point, and I don't think that's ideal for anybody. I hope we won't have to worry too much about that the rest of the way.
Turner has had a fine season overall, though he's in the midst of a shooting slump that is at least partially related to the knee injury he's been playing through. It's not clear what that injury means for his prospects over the next month, but no question, if he's not there to consistently inject some offense from outside, NC State is worse off. Barber is still more important to this team because he can open up the offense in more significant ways, but State needs Turner as well.
STL: What's been the deal with Dez Lee? He played significant minutes for NC State last season and could always be counted on for 5-10 points. This year, he's down to 4 or 5 minutes a game, has logged 4 DNPs (including against Virginia back in January), and has a season-high of 9 points. Has he regressed? Gotten in Gottfried's doghouse? Or just been surpassed by better players?
BTP: There's just no room in the rotation for him, unfortunately. I feel bad for the dude, but he seems to be keeping a good attitude about his diminished role. With Caleb and Cody Martin on the roster this year, plus Trevor Lacey's addition, the opportunities for playing time at the two are not there. Both Martins can play effectively in that spot, and they've shown they can also be more useful than Lee, who has never been much of a shooter.
Lee is now essentially the kitchen sink option--like, if State is having a particularly bad stretch of play, Lee might log some minutes just to see if he sparks anything.
STL: One player you can never overlook on State's roster is BeeJay Anya. Down 30 pounds since last season, Anya has vaulted to third nationally in KenPom's block percentage rating. What's been the biggest improvement you've seen in the big man's game? What's the most effective way to counter him?
BTP: It's actually more like 50 pounds I think, but yeah, that's been a big difference-maker for him. He is still severely limited offensively, but now that he's closer to optimal playing weight, he shows more flashes of the post player he could be eventually.
For now his role mainly involves protecting the rim at the defensive end and being ready for passes off of penetration for the occasional dunk. If he's going to make the leap to consistent scorer, it's probably not going to happen before the end of this season.
His eagerness when it comes to blocking shots is a detriment at times since it leaves him out of position for rebounds; sometimes that's where a defensive breakdown starts for NC State, ending with an easy bucket on the weak side.
He'll struggle with quicker players, understandably, and can get himself in foul trouble when his footwork fails him.
STL: The January matchup was a game of runs and droughts. An eight-point Pack lead faltered in the first half, but State retook the lead in the second before a 9-0 Virginia run closed the door. Since then, State has failed to win consecutive games but lost three in a row at the end of February. Which State team are you expecting to see on Wednesday night? Bottom line: Who ya got?
BTP: Man, I super do not know. No idea what to expect from NC State after the performance at Wake Forest and then the week off that followed. I'm hopeful, and I'm sure that they'll come out ready to play, what with a top-five team in the house. Maybe they have another Duke performance in them, but the odds are against that. Gimme UVA by 8.