Arizona enters the tournament 3-0 and ranked No. 2 in the AP Poll. NC State enters 4-0 in its first season under new head coach Kevin Keatts who was hired from UNC Wilmington in the offseason.
To get expert analysis of NC State, we asked our friends at Backing the Pack, NC State’s SB Nation site, for some insight.
Here’s our Q&A with managing editor Steven Muma:
What are the expectations for NC State this year?
They start with simply seeing a difference in effort: NC State did not play hard very often last season, especially at the defensive end. So far, so good. That's progress we'll need to see the rest of the way since they haven't had to deal with real adversity up to this point. The adjustment to Kevin Keatts' system has been decent early on, and it's a lot for those guys to process, so that's encouraging.
In terms of overall season expectations, I think seven league wins and maybe an NIT bid could be considered a reasonable success. A serious run at an NCAA bid would be gravy; it's not anticipated--at least not by me--and would represent significant improvement over last season.
What are NC State's strengths and weaknesses?
So far, NC State has had no trouble turning over the four tomato cans it has played. The Wolfpack actually leads D-I in defensive turnover percentage, which is quite the contrast from last year, when everyone treated passing lanes like poison.
While the press has been successful, State's looked pretty vulnerable in the half court, which is a bad omen given the level of competition.
On the offensive end, NC State has gotten nice contributions from wing Torin Dorn, forward Lennard Freeman, and point guard Markell Johnson. But Al Freeman is off to a slow start shooting the ball, as is Sam Hunt, and those two guys are supposed to provide the bulk of the Pack's perimeter scoring. Right now NC State doesn't have much in the way of reliable three-point shooting.
Is NC State really as bad of a shooting team as they've shown early on?
State's had no problems scoring the ball inside the arc, it's just those pesky 3-pointers that have been an issue. I have to imagine Freeman will eventually begin to shoot consistently better than he's shown, but the other guys are uncertainties.
Hunt was only an average 3-point shooter at his previous school and Johnson didn't show off much range as a freshman last year (though he has looked better this season). Dorn should pick it up at least a bit from three based on his track record, and Braxton Beverly should wake up at some point.
So is this going to be a 26 percent 3-point shooting team all year? I highly doubt it. But the depth in this area is iffy.
7-footer Omer Yurtseven has been super productive, but doesn't play a whole lot. Why is that?
(editor’s note: Yurtseven is averaging 27.1 points, 10.8 rebounds, and 5.4 blocks per 40 minutes.)
Yurtseven actually looks like he has some significant confidence problems ... he was dreadful against Bryant, and he's been in near-constant foul trouble. To partly answer the question: averaging 9.5 fouls committed per 40 minutes played tends to put a serious limit on availability. He'll have to sort that out.
I'm also not entirely convinced he fits in Keatts' system, or at least I'm not convinced that this system is one in which he'll really thrive. That might be a limiting factor as well.
Mostly, he just hasn't been particularly good while on the floor.
How do you think NC State — a small team — will handle UA's massive frontcourt?
Harsh language? Yeah, I dunno, that's a significant matchup problem, especially if NC State remains without forward Abdul-Malik Abu, who has yet to play this season because of a minor knee injury. I wouldn't expect State to win a lot of one-on-one matchups here, regardless.
Keatts has basically two true forwards that he likes to play, which hasn't mattered in the least in the four games but will probably require some lineup creativity on Wednesday. State can't really do anything but play small ball even if it preferred otherwise.
What type of players are leading scorers Torin Dorn and the two Freemans?
Dorn can do quite a bit from the wing spot and has been serviceable 3-point shooter in the past, but he much prefers to do his scoring in close. He's also a pretty good rebounder for his size, and State will need that from him most nights.
Al Freeman's biggest strength is his ability to shoot from outside, though he has shown more willingness to take the ball off the bounce than he did at Baylor. So far that's ... not going well. But that's also kind of what NC State needs from him since he is the most experienced guard on the roster and State lacks proven scorers.
Lennard Freeman looks like a brand new player after spending three years as mainly bench help. I mean he's making free throws and everything now! He's always been an excellent rebounder, and up to this year he's spent most of his career deferring to basically everyone else at the offensive end. Time will tell if he's a guy who can get 15 points or so on a regular basis, or if this quick start was more a function of who he was playing against.
Arizona often struggles against zone defense. Is that something we might see from NC State?
I wouldn't be surprised, but we haven't seen much of any zone through four games —not that State needed to play zone against teams that were even smaller than them. Ideally we'd like to force roughly 85 turnovers in the back court and skip the whole halfcourt defense thing entirely.
How did NC State's fanbase respond to the hire of Kevin Keatts?
It didn't take long for folks to warm up to him despite the predictable disappointment of not landing Archie Miller. Keatts is an easy guy to like, he's got a nice track record as a head coach, and he recruits pretty well. Didn't take long for fans to realize all of that.
Arizona by, oh, let's say ... 15.
Thanks to Steven for answering our questions about NC State. I answered their questions about Arizona, which you can find here.