The Wolverines come back to Ann Arbor riding on kingly steeds as the champions of the illustrious and surely not mostly meaningless NIT Season Tip-Off tournament in New York. After a game with decidedly Big Ten undertones against Pitt, the Wolverines out-talented what should turn out to be at least an okay Kansas State team.
On the other hand, N.C. State is coming off a wildly successful 2011-12 season, in which the Wolfpack, under new head coach Mark Gottfried (formerly at Alabama), reached the Sweet 16 as a mere 11-seed. As such, the hype train was off to the races; the Wolfpack were ranked #6 coming into the new season, higher than both Duke and North Carolina.
Unfortunately for the people of Raleigh, the Wolfpack have gotten off to a less than ideal start, even though they are still in fact 4-1 (hardly a disastrous start on paper). They dispatched Miami (OH), Penn State and UMass with relative ease, but things got much dicier thereafter.
Playing in San Juan, the 'Pack fell to Oklahoma State, losing each half by the same score (38-28), a 20-point defeat that knocked them from their lofty perch in the polls. Only one starter scored in the double digits (freshman G Rodney Purvis) and the 'Pack shot only 36%, managing only 7 assists as a team.
In their next outing Friday, the 'Pack were given all they wanted by lowly UNC-Asheville, who came into the game at 1-4. They trailed by three at the half, and were down 7 as late as the 8:30 mark of the second half. Powered by C.J. Leslie, Richard Howell and Lorenzo Brown, the 'Pack were able to battle back and grab the ugly win, which is more than can be said for a lot of other big name teams around the country (namely UCLA re: Sunday's loss against Cal Poly). In the end, getting the win is all that matters come Selection Sunday.
With the 'Pack reeling and the Wolverines flying high, a loss at home would be incredibly disappointing for Michigan. On the heels of a successful trip to New York, where the Wolverines flashed their newfound muscle, depth and overall talent, this is a game that Michigan should be able to bring home for the conference in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge.
Based on the season to date, the Wolfpack don't appear to be a particularly deep squad. Only 7 players are averaging significant minutes, 8 if you include Thomas de Thaey's 8.0 mpg (he has only played in 3 of State's 5 games).
As far as scoring distribution goes, the 'Pack have been getting some incredibly balanced scoring from their top 6, who all average north of 10 ppg. Freshman F T.J. Warren leads the way with 14.8 ppg, with senior F Richard Howell not far behind at 14.6 ppg. Both of them are 6'8'', FWIW. Howell is shooting an absurd 72% from the field, with Warren also not far behind at 68%. It's no surprise that Howell leads the team in offensive rebounds (13); Michigan will, as always, need to clean up on the glass. Unlike years past, this is not a pleading admonition, but a gentle reminder to do the thing that we are no actually capable of doing.
As far as guard play goes, the 'Pack rely on freshman Rodney Purvis and junior Lorenzo Brown for a back court 1-2 punch. They both average just around 11 ppg. As the point guard, Brown is naturally the bigger distributor, averaging 5.2 apg. At six feet five inches, Brown presents somewhat of a matchup problem for Michigan. Unless Beilein deploys the 1-3-1 again, I find it hard to believe that Trey Burke will be matched up on him for extended periods of time, if at all.
Rounding out the top 6 are Scott Wood, a senior forward shooting 45% from beyond the arc on the most attempts of any player on the team (29). C.J. Leslie, a six foot nine inches tall junior forward, registers at a shade under 11 ppg; he is also the team's second most effective rebounder behind Howell, grabbing 7 rpg thus far.
In short, the Wolfpack are a top 25 team if you look at their top 6 alone. However, this is a team that doesn't have many viable options past that; Gottfried went with a 7-man rotation against UNC-Asheville. Outside of the two guards, the other four options are forwards at 6'8'' or 6'9'', with Wood the lone outlier at 6'6'' (and the team's resident 3-point gunner).
Michigan should be able to match N.C. State's front court depth with relative ease by virtue of its own abundance of depth.
With only five games in the books, statistical sample size caveats obviously still apply. However, the 'Pack can definitely score, as they sit at 28th in the nation at 80.2 ppg, only three spots behind Michigan. Defensively, however, the 'Pack are an unimpressive 228th in the nation in points per game allowed (69.2).
They don't really block shots, either. Given their personnel, this isn't really a surprise, as they have multiple 6'8/9'' guys but not truly elite guys, height-wise, like Pitt's Steven Adams or KSU's Jordan Henriquez. The 'Pack's block percentage is a lowly 3.8%, just below Michigan's also pretty bad 4.0%. As such, Michigan should not be afraid to attack the basket whatsoever.
Speaking of, Michigan can potentially win this game in the first half by doing so. Given State's lack of depth, getting guys in foul trouble early could basically mean doom for the Wolfpack, a la last year when Michigan got Meyers Leonard to pick up two quick fouls (I can't remember if this happened in both games against the Illini, but it definitely happened in at least one of them).
With respect to pace, the 'Pack play a decidedly more up tempo game than the Wolverines, which I have to imagine is partly skewed by their high-scoring, desperate comeback against UNC-Asheville. They are averaging 7 more possessions per game than Michigan, clocking in at 72.2 possessions per. It's not like Michigan doesn't have the athletes to run, but with so much youth at various spots, you would rather have your upper classmen (i.e. Burke and THJ) slice and dice the opponent in the half court, seizing upon defensive opportunism for intermittent bursts of transition ball.
I wouldn't feel uncomfortable with a faster game, but a faster game would certainly play to N.C. State's liking. So, let's not do that.
- State is a mediocre 146th in assist to turnover ratio, clocking in at 0.97 to Michigan's sterling 17th best 1.46. Brown is the most and seemingly only capable distributor on the team, and whomever lands that matchup could very well determine whether this is a 10-point victory or a close one going in either direction.
- Rebounding. State has rebounded 37% of its misses to date, just a tad lower than Michigan's 38%. For the record, Michigan only rebounded 30% of its misses in 2011-12.
- eFG%. The Wolfpack have two players in the top 35 nationally in eFG%: Richard Howell (71.8%) and T.J. Warren (71.3%).
After a run to the Sweet 16 and the departure of only one significant player from last year's roster, it appears that the college basketball world has jumped the gun a bit with respect to N.C. State's relative quality. Now, odds are they aren't as bad as they've shown the last two games, but it certainly doesn't look good.
The 'Pack have a formidable top 6 that can all score in the double digits. As mentioned, as a 6'5'' point guard, Lorenzo Brown could prove problematic at times, so THJ (or whoever ends up on him) will need to be on their best game defensively.
All in all, I think Michigan has too much depth, and Michigan's size should be able to match up just fine with State's forwards. Unless Michigan puts up a catastrophically awful performance, this is a game that should at worst be a close victory. I picture Michigan leading by about 10-13 for much of the second half before an N.C. State run late makes it somewhat of a game before the inevitable free throwpalooza to close it out.
Score: Michigan 72, N.C. State 64.