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THE BIG PREVIEW: Virginia Cavaliers vs. NC State Wolfpack

NC State is Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

NCAA Basketball: Syracuse at Virginia Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Many months ago, in the preseason AP poll, Duke was ranked #1 and Arizona was ranked #3. NC State was not ranked—or even considered by voters. Yet, here we are in January and NC State has already beaten both Duke and Arizona this year. They have also lost, at home, to UNC Greensboro and on a neutral floor to Northern Iowa. All told, the NC State Wolfpack are 12-5, but have lost all of their road games (The only team they’ve beaten away from PNC Arena is Arizona, but that was in the Bahamas). They are coming off a home win over No. 19 Clemson on Thursday. They led by 10 with under two minutes remaining, and barely hung on for a 1 point win thanks to a missed Clemson FT with less than a second remaining.

Perhaps none of that is surprising. It seems NC State does this every year. Last year, they won @Duke and lost at home to Georgia Tech. But this was supposed to be different. NC State has a new coach in Kevin Keatts, previously at UNC-Wilmington.

Keats has brought a high octane system with him. The Wolfpack average 83 points per game, averaging 72 possessions per game (56th in the nation). Some teams that score a lot do it with one (or two) go-to scorers. Duke, for example, has Marvin Bagley III averaging 23 points per game. NC State, on the other hand, has 5 players averaging double-figures, but nobody over 15.

Their leading scorer is senior Allerik Freeman, a graduate transfer from Baylor, at just over 15 points per game. He’s a 35% career shooter from downtown, plus a 44% shooter from inside the arc. This year, though, he’s 30% from downtown and he’s 38% from inside. That’s really not getting it done. He leads the team in FG attempts by a wide margin, but has actively hurt the team at times. He had a strong game against Duke, with 15 points on 12 shots to go along with 5 assists and 5 rebounds. Freeman also got the line seven times, which is a big part of his game.

Freeman isn’t the only Wolfpack player who gets to the line a lot. Eight NC State players have shot at least 25 FTs this year. One of those players is PG Markell Johnson, who started the first 10 games of the season. Johnson, however, has been suspended indefinitely following an arrest for assault. NC State has a “code of conduct” for their student-athletes and Johnson has been suspended while he dealt with the charges. Those charges were dropped on Thursday, so he may suit up. Chances are he’d come off the bench, though. In part because he’s rusty and in part because freshman Braxton Beverly has been averaging 11.6 points and 5.7 assists per game in Johnson’s absence. Beverly isn’t the playmaker that Johnson was, but he’s a more dangerous scorer.

One of the main reasons the Pack were able to upset Duke was their inside play. Like the Hoos, NC State mostly rotates 3 players inside. One is Turkish 7-footer Omer Yurtseven. He had some issues with eligibility last year, and then averaged 6 points and 4 rebounds in almost 20 minutes per game once that was cleared up. Those numbers were a bit disappointing considering the expectations, but this year he’s just about doubled up those numbers in similar playing time. He’s up to 12 points and 7 rebounds along with almost 2 blocks per game. He’s shooting over 60% from the field, and has made 11/15 from 3. That includes 5/6 from downtown on Thursday against Clemson, en route to a game high 27 points.

Two different guys have started next to Yurtseven this year. Lennard Freeman began the season as the starter, but Abdul-Malik Abu has replaced him since returning from a knee sprain. Both are big, athletic guys with little offensive game. Freeman might be a better defender, but Abu is bigger and better on the glass. They combined for 23 points on 10/16 shooting against Duke, but just 11 points (4/9) against Clemson.

There are really only 2 other rotation guys, Torin Dorn and Sam Hunt. Dorn’s brother plays football for UNC (as did their father). Torin is a slasher who shoots too many 3s and makes just 34% of them. He is the type of guy who can get frustrated by the Pack Line and end up taking ill-advised contested jumpers. Hunt is a graduate transfer from NC A&T, and is a shooter. He’s attempted almost 500 3s in his career, although he’s made just 35% of them. He has a reputation as a shooter, and he’s 90% from the line. What that means is, if Hunt is open expect 3 points. He won’t be open too often against the Hoos.

Generally, there are 2 ways to beat the Hoos. One is by knocking down a bunch of 3 pointers. WVU hit 10 treys in the lone Virginia Cavaliers’ loss this year. The other way is to defend like hell and hope the Hoos’ offense doesn’t show up. Anybody reading this surely remembers the NCAAT games against Michigan State and Florida.

The Wolfpack are not really capable of doing either of those things. They are among the worst three-point shooting teams in the nation, and have just three guys who are really outside shooting threats at all. This means Virginia can keep the pack line nice and tidy and prevent both dribble penetration from the wings and interior position from the bigs. With NC State’s 131st ranking in defensive rating, teams that defend have given them fits. Mostly, they win by getting into shootouts and outscoring the opposition. That isn’t going to happen against Tony Bennett’s squad.