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THE BIG PREVIEW: Virginia vs. NC State

Can the Hoos pick up another road win in conference play?

NCAA Basketball: Clemson at N.C. State Nell Redmond-USA TODAY Sports

After crushing Notre Dame on the road in South Bend, things don’t get any easier just three days later as Virginia Basketball travels to Raleigh to take on the No. 23 NC State Wolfpack. That 23rd ranking is a bit misleading. NC State is No. 32 on KenPom and No. 29 in the NET ranking.

NC State is a little bit of an enigma. The Wolfpack are Wake Forest’s lone ACC win, but NCSU beat Auburn earlier in the season. NC State played on Saturday, needing a buzzer-beating three to escape Clemson at home. This was the cap on an 8-0 game ending run:

NC State, led by coach Kevin Keatts, are almost the exact opposite of Virginia under Tony Bennett.

  • The Pack play at the 17th fastest pace in the nation. Virginia is dead last.
  • The Pack force a lot of turnovers (13th nationally in turnover rate). Virginia is 149th.
  • They also give up a lot of easy buckets (77th in effective FG% defense). Virginia is 3rd.
  • They also turn the ball over a lot (153rd). Virginia is 2nd.
  • They get a ton of offensive rebounds (7th). Virginia is 104th.

Tony Bennett stresses ball security and good shots. Keats stresses putting pressure on the opponent on both ends of the floor. Virginia players rarely go one-on-one. NC State players go one-on-one quite a bit.

Because they play at such a fast pace, they substitute a lot. Nine guys average over 15 minutes per game (for comparison, Virginia has just seven guys averaging over 10). One of those nine for Keatts is PG Markell Johnson, who might be the most talented player on the team. Johnson returned for the Clemson game after missing four straight games with a lower back injury. He had 16 points on 6-for-10 shooting, but had just two assists. Here’s another example of a one-on-one play, this time from Johnson:

This is a very difficult finish. Johnson is an NBA caliber talent, but has had so much trouble staying healthy. He’s one of the best offensive players in the nation, shooting 46% from downtown. That’s impressive. Even more impressive is his 70% shooting from inside. For a guy listed at 6’1, 175, that’s downright amazing.

Johnson actually didn’t start against Clemson, but I’m assuming he’ll be back in the starting lineup for this marquee matchup. With Johnson out, the “point guard” position was held by Braxton Beverly. He’s the guy hitting the game winning three shown above. Beverly is a PG in name only, as his one job is to knock down shots. Over 70% of his shots come from downtown, where he makes 39%. And, as you can see above, he has Ty Jerome range. When he’s on the floor, he probably get Kyle Guy on him. But Beverly likely won’t be on Guy on the other end (that’ll likely be Johnson), as he’s not a particularly good defender.

Outside of Johnson, this team is basically all transfers. Torin Dorn began his career at UNC-Charlotte, Devon Daniels began at Utah, and Blake Harris began at Missouri. CJ Bryce came from UNC-Wilmington with Coach Keatts, while DJ Funderburk came from Ohio State via Northwest Florida State. Wyatt Walker is a graduate transfer from Samford, and Eric Lockett is a graduate transfer from FIU after beginning his career at George Mason. Another transfer of note is former Virginia commit Sacha Killeya-Jones, but he’s not eligible until next season.

All told, over 70% of the team’s minutes come from transfers. Yes, that can happen with coaching changes, but this is extreme especially for an ACC school. It’s a bit of a bizarre roster.

On the wings alongside Johnson are Dorn and some combination of Daniels, Bryce and one of Eric Lockett, Blake Harris, or Jerricole Hellems. Dorn is the best of the group, and the leading scorer. He’s a slasher who shoots 31% from downtown on about two attempts per game, but he’s at 49% overall because he’s so good at getting to the rim and finishing. Here’s an example:

That’s an amazing shot.

After Dorn, Bryce is the best of the group. He’s the only one who’s really a knock down shooter (45%), but he can also get to the rim and has the size to cause trouble. He is the second leading scorer on the team and really complements Dorn.

Up front are Funderburk and Walker. Their games are different, but the results end up being the same. Funderburk is 6’10, 210, and he prefers to face up his defender and go to the rim. He sometimes falls in love with the perimeter a bit too much. He’s taken 14 threes this year, making just four, but he’s a very good offensive rebounder and shot blocker. Walker is 6’9, 240 and is much more of a bruiser. He’s also very strong on the offensive glass and will block some shots. Both guys have had problems with foul trouble. Walker has started every game, save one, but they split minutes pretty evenly. Funderburk has fouled out three times, including in just 13 minutes against Penn State. He fouled out in 20 minutes against Clemson with two points and not a single rebound. Walker played 17 minutes against Clemson and did not score.

Keatts’ base defense is essentially a man-to-man press. They pick up full court. But they don’t always try to trap or force an immediate turnover. It’s really just a way to speed up the tempo and make the offense uncomfortable. Here’s an example:

Look how, after a made basket, the Pack defenders pick up their man full court. This type of thing hasn’t generally worked very well against Tony Bennett’s teams.

The pressure defense doesn’t end in the half court. NC State players are always looking for steals. They’re willing to gamble, even if it leads to an easy buckets. That’s why they are 200th in two-point defense. It’s also why they are 15th in the country in three-point defense. Their wings are always up on shooters. They mostly press after made buckets and on out-of-bounds plays. They’ll send a couple of guys to crash the offensive glass, which also puts them in position to immediately pressure the in-bounds play.

The Pack will, at times, change things up and go with a 1-2-2 press. That will also speed things up, but the goal with this press is to trap and generate steals and easy buckets. As with most presses, it can also lead to easy buckets for the other team.

Against either press, the answer is “all hands on deck”. Ty Jerome (or Kihei Clark) can’t be bringing the ball up alone. There always needs to be an outlet. Big men need to flash to the center of the court. With a lineup that almost always includes three or four ball handlers (Clark, Jerome, Guy, Hunter and Key are all above average ball handlers), Virginia is tough to press. We may not see much of the 1-2-2 press.

Stretch big men can cause them problems, because the NC State bigs don’t want to be on the perimeter. This could be a big game for Jay Huff, who has the outside shooting ability. He can also block shots, and with as many slashers as NC State has, you need somebody to protect the rim. If Huff played enough to qualify, his block rate would be sixth in the nation.

The way the Clemson was able to play with NC State was by slowing down the game and dominating inside. Clemson went 0-for-7 from three, but still shot 49% overall. They also grabbed 35% of their own misses and kept the Pack off their own offensive glass. If Clemson had shot a bit better from the FT line (17-for-26) they would’ve pulled off the upset.

Virginia will do the same thing. As we know, it is very difficult to play fast against Virginia. The Hoos have played just one game faster than the slowest NC State game. That will take NC State out of their comfort zone. They are a very good team in transition, but rely too much on one-on-one play in the half court. Yes, it is never easy to win a conference road game, and NC State has talent. But by copying Clemson’s game plan, and having more talent that Clemson, the Hoos should be OK.