I’m going to give you 4 ‘things’ to watch during the game, be it a player match-up, style of play comparison, strengths/weaknesses, etc., so you’ll have a sense of what to watch for as the game plays out. You probably know me as a stat guy, so I assure you I’m still going to be analyzing the numbers for you and the patterns I find in the stat analysis will give us our 4 keys to the game, so to speak. I’ll then give you 2 predictions based on those things we’ll be watching for throughout the game that I’m confident will play a large role in the eventual outcome of the game. Ergo, you have “what 2 watch 4”.
The 2014/15 edition of the NC State Wolfpack basketball team is very much a conundrum. They’ve won 8 of their last 10 games, beating Louisville and North Carolina on the road, and eventually knocking #1 seed Villanova out of the NCAA tournament. The thing is, though, they had actually lost 7 of the previous 10 games, including a loss at Wake Forest and a 9-point loss at home to Clemson. It would appear it took NC State 20 some odd games to realize they might actually be a good basketball team. Unfortunately for us, they’ve figured that out and have peaked at the perfect time. It’s been said that there are no easy games in the tournament, but this one is going to be as tough as any.
Force bad shots.
Do you remember on Sunday when I told you that Northern Iowa was an unbelievable shooting team and we needed to force them to take bad shots? I said that, and explained at the time, because Northern Iowa was an exceptional shooting team when they got good shots, that preventing good shots could negate their major strength. As such, Louisville forced long, contested jumpers and Northern Iowa shot well below their average from the floor. They also made just 6 of their 19 attempts from beyond the arc. NC State isn’t known for raining down jumpers, but they’re more than capable of knocking down big shots. Their 3 guards are their 3 leading scorers. If you want to shut down NC State’s scoring, forcing difficult shots for those 3 will certainly improve your chances as they are at least susceptible to bad shooting nights. Make them take a lot of long distance threes over defenders. In other words, make Ralston Turner take a lot of bad shots.
Do not let the guards into the paint.
NC State is a very well balanced team on talent, with 4 legitimately talented interior players to compliment their trio of star guards. The forwards – three sophomores in Lennard Freeman, Beejay Anya and Kyle Washington, and a terrific freshmen in Abdul-Malik Abu. Abu & Freeman each recorded a double-double against Villanova. You might think plugging up the paint would be the way to beat them, but you’d be falling into Villanova’s trap. Villanova tried to press outside and then collapse on the paint. That just gave open looks to either the inside or outside shooters. By containing the drive, keeping the guards outside, Louisville can isolate the frontcourt and backcourt from each other. If they can do this, not only will it make it more difficult for NC State’s bigs to get good looks, but it will also force NC State’s athletic guards, who are more comfortable getting in the paint and creating shots for themselves, to settle on shots from distance. Percentages will go down, as they did with Northern Iowa, and a potent offense can be contained. Cat Barber torched Louisville in their last meeting, almost exclusively by getting into the paint, and in the few times he wasn’t there, Lacey was. Louisville must keep them outside trying to shoot over them.
Drive at NC State early & get points in the paint.
Louisville’s offense for the better part of the year has been to use athleticism to create a scoring opportunity. Terry Rozier has done a magnificent job at creating shots for himself and putting points on the board, as have Wayne Blackshear and Montrezl Harrell more than a few times, but what Louisville will need to do against NC State to get that going is drive at their bigs early and often. Duke ran out to a 49-22 half-time lead against NC State almost exclusively scoring from inside the 3-point line. The Blue Devils could then coast to a comfortable win. There’s probably not going to be a comfortable win in this one, but Louisville has the ability offensively, with Pitino now emphasizing offense in his coaching more than ever, to at least match-up with the firepower. The Cards are going to have to get some offensive contribution from everybody to move on, and I’m always a fan of high percentage shots.
Get Q open looks.
For the most part, the traditional point guard is seen as the distributor, not really a scorer. The modern star point guard is a scorer too, but typically a scorer who thrives with the ball in his hand. Quentin Snider can score with the ball in his hand, but he can also spot up, and the latter is a big part of why Louisville reached a 4th consecutive Sweet Sixteen. Since taking over as Louisville’s starting point guard, Snider has averaged 9.1 points, 2.9 assists and 2.9 rebounds per game. The freshman’s NCAA tournament numbers are 13 points per game on 10 of 20 from the field, 4 of 7 from the 3-point line. Q’s offensive production has elevated Louisville to nearing ‘contender’ status, and has opened things up for Wayne Blackshear to get on the scoreboard as well. We must continue to find good looks for Q to open up the drives for Terry & Wayne, and open up mid-range and post opportunities for Montrezl.
Prediction 1: Louisville’s guards will shoot a better percentage and score more points than NC State’s guards.
This is a ridiculous ask, but it’s what I think Louisville’s is capable of topping the NC State backcourt. I think NC State has one of the more talented backcourts in the country, and I’ve been heard before saying I’d take several players from that team on Louisville, but I don’t think they’re going to play together very well or be able to do their usuall blow-by moves to create wide open looks. Sagging off of Barber and forcing a long range jumper could completely knock him off the score sheet. Do the same to Truner and Lacey, albeit with a hand in their faces, and you’ll get lots and lots of missed jumpers. Don’t let them in the paint. Make them shoot.
Prediction 2: Montrezl Harrell and Terry Rozier will both approach or eclipse 20 points.
There will be a lot of fresh legs coming up against Montrezl Harrell, who is likely to play most of the game, but don’t let that fool you into thinking Harrell will be shutdown. None of NC State’s players are soft players, they’re actually really physical, but for that reason they may find themselves in foul trouble and none of them are quick enough to keep up with him 1-on-1. If Terry is scoring the ball as he’s capable of doing, NC State will have little choice but to try to make Harrell beat them, which he can do. It will take everyone playing well and clicking, but if that happens, these two guys could have great nights and lead the team through to the next round.
This is another game like UC Irvine where I’m extremely nervous. The Northern Iowa game felt like we’d present more of a match-up nightmare for them than they would us, purely because of our athleticism and defensive abilities as a team. With NC State, much like with UC Irvine, I don’t see much of an athletic advantage for Louisville. Conversely, NC State is without a doubt the most athletic team we’ve faced in the tournament and probably the most talented, top-to-bottom. They have several guys who can score and if Louisville’s offense isn’t on, the defense will have to be perfect to win. I hope we’re watching a performance similar to Sunday’s when Louisville can build a double-digit lead and hold it through, but I have a feeling we’re in for a dog fight with NC State. This one could be bad for our stress levels. Louisville can definitely win this game, but it’s going to require a superb effort from every Cardinal in all areas of the game.
Score prediction: Louisville 65 – NC State 64