Well, it has come down to this. When you set out in November, you're hoping to end up at this point in the year with a chance to play for the national title. Nearly 300 teams have already lost that opportunity, but Xavier is still alive. I'll grant that it's not much of a chance, but being a seven-game winning streak away from glory is a lot better than hosting a first-rounder in the NIT. I had a herd of great jokes about Dayton lined up, but then the committee fouled things up by not only putting UD in the tournament but drastically over-seeding them.
We're not here to talk about Dayton, though. We are here to talk about NC State, so let's do that. To get to the play-in game, you either have to be a mid-major beloved by the media or a power conference team that left some wins on the table (or just grossly mis-seeded by the committee). NC State is the middle one. There's no doubting they're a talented crew, but their capacity for self-immolation is almost fascinating. The gave themselves bad losses by losing to Miami (FL) by 15, Clemson by 17, and Wake Forest and North Carolina Central at all. They also missed resume wins by losing to Cuse by one, UNC by one in OT, and Duke by eight in the ACC tournament.
Despite that, there are definitely reasons to fear them. They can beat anyone on their day, as revealed in their wins over Tennessee (albeit in December), Maryland, Pitt, and Cuse. It all comes down to execution (and TJ Warren) for them, and there's always a chance they just come out and roll their opponent, no matter who it is. On the other hand, they lost to Virginia and Duke by a total of 66 points in the span of a week in January.
Offense wins games, and the Wolfpack are a formidable offensive force. Their 28th ranking in adjusted offensive efficiency is elite, and the biggest component is a TO rate of just 15.9% (34th in the country). That and an offensive rebound percentage of 34.8% (64th) lead to a lot of opportunities to at least get a shot up, and they by and large take advantage of them. They shoot 51.3% from inside the arc, but that is let down by a horrible 30.3% (325th) mark from deep and 66.1% from the line.
Defense wins championships, and NC State has won zero championships this year. Their defense is a shade below average despite the fact that the hold opponents to 47.1% shooting inside the arc and 32% from beyond it. What they do poorly on defense is basically what they do well on offense: they are bad at forcing turnovers and even worse at getting defensive rebounds. They also send opponents to the line at a rate that is well above average.
NC State boasts a basically average tempo, thanks to long offensive possessions but quick ones on the other end. They are a deep team, ranking 75th in the nation with 34.7% of their minutes coming off the bench. They are super tall (+3.5" of effective height) but very inexperienced.
(NB: eight players have started at least 11 games for NC State, so there's some ambiguity regarding their preferred starting lineup. I'm following the lineup used by our new friend wolp facf kan, who broke it down for us as a fan of NC State. His work is linked at the bottom of the page; you should definitely read it when you're done here.)
The player: 5'11", 157-pound guard Tyler Lewis
The numbers: 4.2/1.2/3.6 on .340/.233/.750 shooting
More numbers: 32.0% assist rate, 38.9% EFG%
The words: Lewis is on the court for one reason, and that's to pass to the guys who actually have any business taking a shot. To his credit, he averages fewer than five shots per game, so he appears to understand what's going on. Defensively, he has 7 steals and zero blocks on the season, so he's something less than a wizard on that end.
The player: 6'5", 209-pound wing Ralston Turner
The numbers: 10.2/2.4/0.9 on .398/.367/.688 shooting
More numbers: 23.4% shots%, 72-196 3PM-3PA, 12.2% TO%
The words: Turner's numbers profile him as a spot-up shooter who occasionally puts the ball on the deck and goes. He is far and away NC State's biggest threat from deep in terms of both volume and efficiency, and Xavier could be in trouble if he gets hot. He offers almost nothing defensively in terms of blocks and steals, and he is a very poor rebounder for a man his size at a guard position. He is on the floor because he shoots well from behind the arc and nobody else on the team does.
The player: 6'8", 215-pound forward TJ Warren
The numbers: 24.8/7.2/1.1 on .525/.277/.711 shooting
More numbers: 37.1% shots%, 10.9% OReb%, 12.3% TO%, 3.0% steal%
The words: Warren is a one-man wrecking crew for the Wolfpack. You can't stop him, and lately you can't even hope to contain him. Since the beginning of February, he has had 30+ 6 times and 40+ twice. He is a relentless offensive rebounder and sports a varied and successful mid-range game. The only gaps in his game are mediocre defensive rebounding and a questionable three-point stroke. He's a borderline lottery NBA draft prospect for a reason; hopefully Xavier can make this his last college game.
The player: 6'9", 225-pound forward Kyle Washington
The numbers: 4.9/4.0/0.5 on .421/.000/.563 shooting
More numbers: 80.5% of shots are two-point jumpers, 17.7% DReb%, 3.2% block%
The words: Washington is a forward whose game occurs primarily in the mid-range. His role is to space the offense and create lanes for other players to move into. While he is an above-average shooter on two-point jumpers (40.9%), the shot is just not efficient enough to make him a go-to offensive player. He does not get a lot of offensive rebounds because of his positioning on the floor, but he is good on the defensive glass and blocks enough shots to merit consideration from those who would try to score around him.
The player: 7'1", 264-pound center Jordan Vandenberg
The numbers: 4.5/4.6/0.9 on .677/.000/.556 shooting
More numbers: 53 of 63 made baskets are at the rim, 9.9% shots%, 9.4% OReb%, 6.2% block%
The words: Vandenberg is a big guy who plays basketball more than a basketball player per se. He anchors the middle of the defense and sets up shop in the interior of the offense, but he doesn't have the skills to make his own shot. He's a good offensive rebounder and is big enough to be a good shot blocker, but he doesn't profile as a seven-footer who is going to take over a game. Of course, now that I've said that he'll go for 18 and 8.
Anthony "Cat" Barber leads off because he has a cool nickname and plays a lot of minutes. A lightning quick 6'2" combo guard, he is instant offense off the bench. He has the speed to get his in the open court, and his court vision puts him in the top 150 in the nation in assist rate. His line of 8.7/2.1/3.6 comes in 24.8 minutes per game. Posting the exact same amount of minutes is 6'4" shooting guard Desmond Lee. He posts a line of 8.4/3.0/1.6 and is a volume scorer who excels at drawing fouls and getting to the line.
Forward Lennard Freeman is a 6'8" freshman getting 22.6 minutes per game and putting up 4.1 and 5.6. He flies to the glass on both ends and plays better defense than the Pack's starting forwards. Finally, BeeJay Anya is a 325-pound center who weighs 325 pounds (he's 6'9"). That's not an editing error; I wanted to emphasize that the boy weighs 325 pounds. Despite that, he puts up an incredible 11.9% block%. Imagine if he could jump! He can't, because he's 325 pounds. He's listed at 325 pounds.
-How big of a factor will the crowd be? Ken Pomeroy has listed this as a semi-home game for Xavier due to the campus's proximity to UD, but I would be stunned to see a partisan crowd favoring X. In case you have forgotten, UD generally hates the Muskies and we feel justified in hating them right back. I'm sure a strong contingent of Xavier fans will make the drive up I-75, but I'm guessing that any "neutral" fan in the audience will come prepared to hurl invective at the ostensible home team.
-How much can Xavier get out of Matt Stainbrook? Games on back-to-back nights with a lingering MCL problem clearly took a toll on Matt in the Big East Tournament. As both a rebounder and a facilitator on offense, he's Xavier's second-most important player, and having him out there changes the dynamic of the game for X. He excels at the things the Muskies are going to need to do to win this basketball game; if he can't go or is limited, we're going to need to see Jalen Reynolds or Isaiah Philmore step up and play at the absolute peak of his ability.
-Who can handle TJ Warren? Warren is one of the best players in the nation, and the Wolfpack basically relies on him to provide a huge portion of their offense. He is 6'8", long, lean, and explosive. His effective range doesn't generally extend to the arc (which hasn't stopped him trying), but he is adept in the mid-range and relentless on the offensive glass. Justin Martin seems like the ideal matchup as much as Xavier has one, but don't be surprised to see a little bit of Philmore or even Jalen Reynolds on him at times if he is causing too much havoc on the boards.
-Win the extra possession battle. Xavier's defense is better than NC State's, but their offense is slightly worse. Neither team excels at forcing turnovers. Xavier's offense has been more turnover prone than NC State's, but the Muskies make up for it by being leaps and bounds better on the defensive glass. There is a very good chance that this game could come down to who gets the most looks at the bucket, and the way to preserve those opportunities is to not turn the ball over before you get a shot and convert as many misses into extra possessions as possible. If X can kill possessions on the defensive glass and avoid turning the ball over on offense, they have an excellent shot at winning this game.
-Play inside-out on offense. Xavier's three-point woes are well-documented, and NC State does a pretty good job of shutting down the arc as a team. While they also are above average in blocking shots, they have a distinct habit of sending opponents to the free throw line. Basing the offense in the painted area has plenty of benefits for Xavier: it opens up the offensive glass as the defense has to rotate to help, it's (generally) easier to score from near the basket, you're more likely to head to the line, and it takes pressure off three-point shooters who need all the help they can get. Whether or not Matt Stainbrook is on the floor, X needs to focus on working through the post or driving the guards on offense.
-Don't panic. For whatever reason, this team has made a habit of falling behind in games before clawing back into them late. Even if NC State opens up a meaningful lead, Xavier has to avoid throwing away possessions with overly urgent play on offense or disorientation on defense. In the Creighton Big East Tournament game, X lapsed for just a moment on defense and allowed back-to-back easy layups to a third-string big man because of simple defensive errors. The lead went to 19 on those buckets, but they only loomed large in light of Xavier's cutting it to 3 with a minute left. Every possession counts, and Xavier can win this game by trusting the process even if things get bleak.