Defense key for Pack to earn season sweep of UNC

February 9, 2018 GMT

Up next for NC State is rival North Carolina, and if the Wolfpack can’t correct the defensive issues from the first matchup in Chapel Hill, there will likely be a different result.

What’s really concerning is the fact that defense was the major reason why State couldn’t knock off Virginia Tech earlier this week.

Per Synergy Sports, the Hokies are averaging 1.056 points per possession, an “excellent” rating and a ridiculous 99 percent rank that is sixth-best in the country. They have a 97 percent rank against man defense; if you go zone it is 89 percent. Good luck in finding a set scheme, outside of Virginia and the Pack Line defense, to limit Virginia Tech’s offense.

With point guard Justin Robinson the driving force and primary distributor, Tech shot 63.5 percent from the field in the win. NC State was focused on limiting Virginia Tech’s three-point shooting, which they did as Tech hit just 3 of 10 three-pointers. However, Tech’s ball-screen attack was operating at peak performance, and Robinson and others lived in the paint – often finishing over one or zero defenders at the rim.

In State’s win in Chapel Hill, the Wolfpack seemed to have the same plan. North Carolina’s three-point shooting was a big reason why the Tar Heels beat Duke Thursday night, and State was determined to not leave shooters when the two teams played.

Senior wing Theo Pinson, who leads North Carolina in assists, was able to come off ball screens and get in the paint. He had a career night scoring the basketball. However, NC State held Joel Barry, Kenny Williams and Cameron Johnson to 0-of-9 shooting from three-point range. Not only did the trio come up scoreless behind the arc, they only took nine total threes in State’s overtime win.

While it’s easy to say “Let’s just use the same formula and everything will be fine,” it isn’t that simple for NC State. Can the Wolfpack count on Al Freeman to hit seven three-pointers again? How about Torin Dorn scoring 20 and hitting four more three-pointers? The Pack’s wing duo combined for 49 points and 11 made three-pointers.

At Virginia Tech, Freeman and Dorn combined for 5-of-18 shooting from the field, were 1 of 9 from 3-point range and had seven turnovers with just two assists. That type of wing production will yield a loss on most nights.

In their loss to NC State, North Carolina shot the ball extremely well. The Heels shot 52.8 percent from the field and outscored the Pack by 22 points in the paint. The Wolfpack’s ball pressure was disruptive, but it was the Maye and Pinson Show all night.

Who will be the stars this time around? Torin Dorn? Allerik Freeman? Luke Maye? Omer Yurtseven? Joel Berry?

No one knows. But to complete the sweep State has to improve defensively because you can’t count on breakout performances. The lone constant for State has been Markell Johnson and his playmaking, but UNC will certainly have a different game plan for Johnson, who might have been the best player on the court two weeks ago.

Look for NC State to come out fired up and ready to play. Kevin Keatts was noticeably upset in his press conference after the Virginia Tech loss when referencing the Wolfpack’s defense. He takes pride in his teams getting stops and that rarely happened against the Hokies. State often failed to properly defend ball screens, rotations were late and no one was willing to step up at the rim to consistently contest shots or attempt to take charges.

With road trips to Syracuse and Wake Forest looming, Saturday’s game may be the most important of the season for NC State. North Carolina will make the necessary adjustments to put shooters in better positions to score, but the Wolfpack can’t be concerned with that.

State defeated Notre Dame last Saturday by holding the Irish to 58 points. Players hustled, communicated and competed defensively. Duplicate that effort, and the Wolfpack will sweep the Tar Heels. Don’t, and it could be a long night.