"My rule was I wouldn't recruit a kid if he had grass in front of his house.
That's not my world. My world was a cracked sidewalk." —Al McGuire

Monday, March 25, 2024

N.C. State Wolfpack Preview


David Joplin and Tyler Kolek lifted Marquette back to the Sweet 16

Photo by Alex Martin | Journal & Courier

I don't know that I've ever enjoyed a Marquette win less than I did the game against Colorado. In the aftermath, I was joyful, but in the morning before and while the game was going on, I was a nervous wreck. The butterflies were having a riot in my stomach and my anxiety levels were through the roof. After the game, I took the dogs for a long walk just to burn off some nervous energy. That win was one I needed about as much as I need air itself.

Thanks to fantastic efforts from Tyler Kolek, Kam Jones, David Joplin, Chase Ross, and really the Marquette team as a whole, we advanced to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2013. Knowing our opponent, it seemed appropriate to break down the North Carolina State Wolfpack in a rematch of the 1974 National Championship game.

D.J. Burns silenced N.C. State's critics en route to the Sweet 16

Photo by Joe Sargent | Getty Images

North Carolina State Wolfpack

March 29, 2024 at American Airlines Center (Dallas, TX)

Head Coach: Kevin Keatts (208-121 overall, 136-93 at N.C. State)

NET Ranking: 63

kenpom Ranking: 53

Projected Starters: PG Michael O'Connell (6'2" Sr), SG D.J. Horne (6'2" 5th), SF Casey Morsell (6'3" 5th), PF Mohamed Diarra (6'10" Jr), C D.J. Burns (6'9" 5th)

Entering the NCAA Tournament, the Wolfpack were in rough shape. They had lost 10 of their last 14 games, were below .500 in conference play, and rumors were swirling that Kevin Keatts would be fired once their season came to an end. Their #76 ranking in kenpom was 8th in the ACC and even optimistic Wolfpack fans would've expected a short trip. Instead, after beating Louisville and Syracuse, they upset Duke, Virginia, and North Carolina on consecutive nights, winning five games in five days and advancing to the NCAA Tournament. After earning an 11-seed for their run, the Wolfpack upset 6-seed Texas Tech and were fortunate to draw 14-seed Oakland in the Round of 32 and defeated the Golden Grizzlies in overtime.

Experience is the hallmark of the Wolfpack roster. They boast three fifth-year starters, bolstered by a junior and senior. The focal point is D.J. Burns, a massive presence listed at 6'9", 275 pounds but likely even more imposing than that. Despite his size, Burns is described by Field of 68 analyst Terrence Oglesby as a "walking refrigerator with ballerina feet." Marquette fans will be reminded of Davante Gardner. Burns is a massive human, but also has great footwork and touch around the rim, and is a crafty distributor who leads the Wolfpack in assist rate. Their next most potent weapon is D.J. Horne, an exceptional shooter (40.6% from three) who can also get to the rim and leads the team in scoring. O'Connell is a lower usage shooter who has been scorching of late (63.6% in their last 7 games, 36.6% overall), Morsell is a slasher who does his best work inside the arc, and Diarra is the glass cleaner who is a lob threat on offense and rim protector on defense. NC State really only goes two deep on the bench, with Butler transfer Jayden Taylor subbing in on the wing and Ben Middlebrooks backing up the front court. Both are serviceable and there's not much lost when they go to the bench, but there isn't a ton of depth there beyond that.

Aside from an excellent turnover rate, the Wolfpack may have one of the most vanilla kenpom Four Factors pages ever. They rank between 130-200 in seven of eight factors on offense and defense. They don't turn it over, but they don't really do anything particularly well or particularly poorly. In terms of overall rankings among Sweet 16 teams, they are last in Adjusted Efficiency Margin, 14th in adjusted offensive efficiency, and 14th in adjusted defensive efficiency. Where the Wolfpack can be most dangerous on offense is in spot up and transition opportunities. They are 80th percentile on spot up jumpers, averaging 1.003 points per possession, and that is an area where Marquette is not very good defensively, landing in the 30th percentile. Expect NC State to try to exploit Marquette's switches in this regard. They are also one of the best transition offenses in the country, ranking in the 86th percentile, though Marquette is better defending transition. Where the Wolfpack could really struggle, though, is on the defensive end. Marquette excels at pick and roll ball handler (90th percentile vs 28th for NC State), pick and roll man (89th vs 52nd), and cuts (95th to 16th). Synergy Sports rates Marquette as excellent in all of those categories and they make up 33.8% of Marquette's offensive possessions.

It's fair to point out that NC State has been much better during their current 7-game winning streak. We sorted T-Rank to find out areas where they've really improved during this incredible run they are on. We show both the numbers per T-Rank along with the national rank in parentheses:

They are playing better on both the offensive and defensive ends. That is largely driven by improvements in shooting on offense and limiting shot takers on defense. That's all fairly straightforward. What seems less so is the bizarre and radical shift in free throw rate on both ends. NC State has gone to the line more often than their opponents in all seven games, nearly doubling opponent attempts (170-94). They haven't had the same reffing crew in any of the games, and of the 21 ref positions worked there have been 17 different refs. There's not any indication of bias, but NC State is making a priority to get to the line and to keep opponents off the line.

So what can we expect from this game? Marquette is favored -6.5 on the point spread, and it's not hard to see why. As impressive as NC State's #22 T-Rank is during their winning streak, Marquette is ranked #14 in the country during that same span and that's with Tyler Kolek only playing 2 of 5 games. If NC State can continue their hot shooting, create open looks, and put pressure on the defense through fouls, they could stay in this game. But more likely I expect Marquette to hold their own on defense while cutting NC State's pick and roll defense to ribbons. As good as D.J. Burns is, he is a defensive liability in pick and roll, and Marquette just exploited a similar big man in Eddie Lampkin for Colorado, who had a plus/minus of -7 in 31 minutes played and it's not surprising Colorado's run back into the game came with Lampkin on the bench. NC State's lack of depth makes that a more difficult task, particularly as the development of Tre Norman and Zaide Lowery allow Marquette to go nine deep if necessary to better weather the aforementioned foul disparity. This is a game that Marquette probably wins nine out of ten times, but it's the NCAA Tournament, and all it takes is coming up short that once to see your season crash to a premature end.

Marquette Connection: 50 years ago today, NC State defeated Marquette 76-64 in the National Championship game to claim their first title. Most of the country felt the title was decided when NC State beat UCLA 80-77 in the Final Four, but Marquette played it close early until legendary coach Al McGuire's temper turned the tide. After taking a 28-27 lead late in the first half, McGuire argued a foul call against Marcus Washington and was hit with his first technical foul. David Thompson made three free throws and NC State scored on the ensuing possession to grab a 32-28 lead. Less than a minute later, McGuire protested a goaltending call on Bo Ellis and was assessed a second technical that allowed NC State to push the lead to 37-28. While he wasn't kicked out (that rule didn't exist) it did result in a 10-0 swing in favor of NC State and Marquette was never able to reclaim the lead.

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