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Arizona vs. NC State: 3 keys to a Wildcats win over the Wolfpack

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NC State forces the highest percentage of turnovers in college basketball this season, so Arizona will have to be extra careful with the ball

NCAA Basketball: Cal. State - Bakersfield at Arizona Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

The second-ranked Arizona Wildcats have not been legitimately tested this season, and Wednesday’s game against the North Carolina State Wolfpack (5 p.m. MST, ESPN3) in the Bahamas should change that.

NC State, a member of the ACC, is 4-0 this season, though it really hasn’t played anyone either, picking up wins against VMI, Charleston Southern, Bryant, and Presbyterian.

The Wolfpack are the No. 99 team in college basketball, per KenPom, with the No. 83 offense and No. 136 defense.

Arizona has a 92 percent chance of winning, per KenPom, and here are three keys for the Wildcats to avoid the upset.

1. Limit turnovers

NC State’s defense enters Wednesday’s game with the highest opponent turnover percentage in the country, forcing a turnover on 31.1 percent of possessions. That can likely be credited to first-year coach Kevin Keatts’ aggressive press defense, plus the fact the Wolfpack are a small, but athletic, team and are opportunistic in the passing lanes, ranking fifth in the country in steal percentage (15.2).

Maybe Arizona’s only offensive weakness this year is that it gets turnover-happy at times. The Wildcats are 87th in the country in turnover percentage (16.7) and point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright is turning the ball over at a career-high rate (25.3 percent).

Freshmen Emmanuel Akot and Ira Lee have had trouble in that respect, too, both posting turnover percentages above 24 percent.

Arizona has not faced a defense like NC State’s this season, so it will be interesting to see how the UA handles the press.

The Wildcats’ offense has been nearly unstoppable in both the halfcourt and transition this season, so avoiding lost possessions because of turnovers might be all it needs to do to take advantage of an NC State defense that ranks just 136th in adjusted efficiency.

2. Defend the paint

NC State is a pretty terrible 3-point shooting team, converting on just 26.4 percent of its attempts from beyond the arc.

However, the Wolfpack have two dynamic guards that can do damage at the rim, one of whom is Torin Dorn. The 6-foot-5 junior leads NC State in scoring (18.5 PPG) and is shooting a blistering 88.9 percent at the rim, per Hoop-Math.com, despite taking 57.4 percent of his attempts from that range.

Markell Johnson, NC State’s lightning-quick point guard, is only 3-10 from 3 this season, but is averaging 9.0 assists per game with a stellar assist-to-turnover ratio above 3 to 1. The 6-foot-1 sophomore knifes his way to the rim to set up shots for others or create one for himself — he’s averaging 11.5 PPG and shooting 69 percent at the rim. That could be a difficult matchup for Jackson-Cartwright.

Lennard Freeman, a 6-foot-8 forward, operates as NC State’s center and he is averaging 16.3 points per game doing all of his damage in the paint (he has not taken a 3 or a mid-range jumper all season, per Hoop-math.com).

NC State’s best shooters (a term used relatively) are Allerik Freeman, a 6-foot-3 senior, and Sam Hunt, a 6-foot-2 senior. Freeman is 6-18 (.333) from 3 this season, while Hunt is 6-22 (.273).

However, Freeman shot over 38 percent from 3 the past two seasons at Baylor and Hunt shot 35.6 percent from 3 last year, so they will probably progress to the mean at some point.

Still, Arizona’s main focus should be stopping dribble penetration — something it has not done well this season — and limiting the number of attempts NC State gets at the rim.

Make the Wolfpack shoot.

3. Use size difference to advantage

Here’s a look at both teams’ depth charts:

The first thing you might notice is the size difference between the two teams.

Dorn, listed at 6-foot-5 or 6-foot-6, starts at power forward for NC State, while three players 6-foot-3 and under start at the three guard spots. Aside from point guard, Arizona is bigger at every position and by a large margin at some spots.

Lennard Freeman starts at center and he’s just 6-foot-8 (though he is 265 pounds). NC State has been without 6-foot-8 forward Abdul-Malik Abu due to injury, but does have 7-footer Omer Yurtseven at its disposal. However, the former UA recruiting target has not shown the ability to defend without fouling, averaging 9.5 fouls per 40 minutes.

But just because Arizona is the bigger team doesn’t mean it will automatically have an easy time controlling the glass.

Arizona has actually been a pedestrian defensive rebounding team this season despite its towering frontcourt, placing 149th in defensive rebounding percentage. Meanwhile, NC State is 55th in the country in offensive rebounding percentage, so the Wolfpack could cause some trouble there.

Additionally, the size difference between the teams might create an awkward matchup for Dusan Ristic. The 7-footer will likely have to guard someone that’s smaller, but quicker, than him which he has struggled to do during his tenure in Tucson.

At the same token, Ristic’s low-post game might be more effective than usual given the height advantage he’ll have.

But knowing Sean Miller, if Ristic is having trouble defending, he will probably opt to go small, putting Deandre Ayton at center and someone like Lee or Akot at the 4.

The beauty of this Arizona team is it can deploy all types of looks and lineups — big, small, athletic, skilled, etc. — and this could be a game where that is on display.


Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire