8 North Carolina State Wolfpack vs. 9 LSU Tigers
March 19, 9:20 p.m. ET, TBS
LSU has something of a generous seed for a team that was so inconsistent throughout the conference season. The Tigers only picked up two losses in the non-conference, neither of them horrific, and they beat West Virginia in the process. During SEC play, though, they were one of the most maddening teams in the country.
It all began with losing to Missouri in the league opener, and it continued with future losses to Mississippi State, Auburn, Tennessee, and then Auburn again in the SEC Tournament. Despite those missteps, LSU still almost beat Kentucky, did beat Arkansas, and won all of their games against Georgia, Ole Miss, Florida, and Vanderbilt. Only a sweep at the hands of Texas A&M blemished the Tigers' record against the league's middle class.
NC State was similarly erratic through the year. The Wolfpack didn't pick up a signature non-conference win, though victories over Richmond and Boise State were nice. NCSU did beat Duke, Louisville, and North Carolina in conference play, though, and had losses of no more than four points to UNC, Notre Dame, and Virginia. They also donated wins to Wake Forest and Boston College, two teams that had four and three other ACC wins, respectively. They picked up a loss to Wofford in December as well. After starting the year 6-0, including those Richmond and BSU wins, the Pack wouldn't win more than three in a row the rest of the way.
Fans of both of these teams spent the year going crazy with their teams, basically.
These teams are closely matched, with NC State rating 39th and LSU rating 43rd in the KenPom ratings. They differ in their efficiency stat balances, though.
NCSU is 30th in offensive efficiency and 91st in defensive efficiency. LSU is the opposite, clocking in 75 in offensive efficiency and 33 in defensive efficiency. Despite those differences, the Tigers actually outscore the Wolfpack on average by a 73.7 per game to 70.4 per game margin. The reason is pace. LSU likes a fast affair, ranking 13th nationally with an average of 69.8 possessions per 40 minutes. NC State only averages 64.4 possessions per 40 minutes, good for 189th nationally.
Furthermore, LSU is a frontcourt-led team while NCSU is a guard-driven team. The strength of the Tigers is in its powerful pair of forwards Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey. The top three scorers from the Wolfpack, the only ones who average in double figures in fact, are all guards.
NC State has played four teams in LSU's neighborhood in the KenPom ratings, which I define as being plus or minus 10 spots in the ratings. The Wolfpack has also played nine other games against teams notably better than the Tigers and one against one worse, but not too much worse, than LSU.
|Boise State||H||41||E11||W 60-54|
|West Virginia||N||25||MW5||L, 83-69|
|North Carolina||H||16||W4||L, 81-79|
|Miami (FL)||R||57||-||L, 65-60|
|Notre Dame||H||11||MW3||L, 81-78 OT|
|North Carolina||R||16||W4||W, 58-46|
NC State split the games against the comparable teams, going 2-1 against the mid-majors but losing to the Power 5 team. The Pack's 3-6 record against KenPom top 25 teams is impressive, given that those teams are a cut above it. NCSU may not have played a lot of teams in LSU's range, but it is certainly battle tested nonetheless.
LSU played nine games against teams in NC State's neighborhood and two against teams notably better.
|West Virginia||R||25||MW5||W, 74-73|
|Georgia||H||35||E10||W, 87-84 2OT|
|Ole Miss||R||38||W11||W, 75-71|
|Texas A&M||H||48||-||L, 67-64|
|Vanderbilt||R||45||-||W, 79-75 OT|
|Texas A&M||R||48||-||L, 68-62|
|Ole Miss||H||38||W11||W, 73-63|
This looks like the imprint of a team that plays to the level of its opponents. The losses to A&M are the only things close to being blemishes here, but they both were narrow defeats. The loss to Kentucky was about as close as can be, with the Tigers letting a win slip away late. As long as the Wolfpack hasn't hired Billy Kennedy as a consultant, things aren't looking so bad for LSU. The team can't get itself motivated for the likes of Auburn or Mississippi State, but it can for teams that are in NCSU's class.
Players to Watch
This game is a familiar affair, even though the teams have never played each other. Johnny Jones was an assistant under NC State head coach Mark Gottfried for a season at Alabama. NCSU's top player is Trevor Lacey, who LSU knows from his days at Alabama before transferring to Raleigh. The Wolfpack also features Ralston Turner, who played a season in Baton Rouge before likewise transferring to NCSU.
Lacey is the Wolfpack's leader, scoring 15.8 points per game. Turner, with 13.2 points per game, and Anthony Barber, with 12.1 points per game, make up the team's Big Three scorers. They collectively score over half of the team's points on average, and shutting at least one of them down will be key to winning the game. On the defensive end, keep an eye on Beejay Anya, who averages 2.6 blocks per game. How he deals with LSU's bigs down low may end up deciding the game.
Martin and Mickey are LSU's dynamic duo, and they each nearly average a double-double. Martin scores 16.9 points and grabs 9.2 rebounds per game, while Mickey scores 15.5 points and hauls in 9.8 rebounds per game. Mickey is the blocker of the two, swatting 3.6 shots per game as well. Tim Quarterman and Keith Hornsby are the lead backcourt scorers for the team.
This is Mark Gottfried's 11th time in the Big Dance. In his ten previous trips, he's lost in the Round of 64 six times. He's played in four 8-9 games, losing three but going to the Elite Eight after the one win he got there. This is Johnny Jones's third trip to the NCAA Tournament, with the prior two coming in 2007 and 2010 with North Texas. In both of those trips, his Mean Green was a 15-seed and lost in the first round.
Some of the most indelible images of March Madness are of guards slashing to the hoop or making big threes, and we might see Lacey do some of that. However, quality play down low like what LSU has is not common in college basketball, and skilled big men can carry a team far. When the Tigers are on and paying attention, they're a bad matchup for nearly every team in the entire field. That is true in NC State's case.
Both coaches in this game have shaky reputations as in-game coaches, with the botched ending to the near miss against Kentucky being Exhibit A in Jones's case. If Martin and Mickey can stay out of foul trouble, they'll be able to power the Tigers to a win provided both of Quarterman and Hornsby aren't ice cold. If the Tigers win this game, they'll have a great shot at making a splash against another guard-heavy team in Villanova in the next round.
Ah, but I get ahead of myself. With this LSU squad, you really do have to take it one game at a time. I think the Tigers will pull this one out, but you can never be sure with this team.
LSU 72, NC State 65