The Wolfpack have a lot on the line today. Their NCAA Tourney resume has been bolstered by three huge wins. They beat Duke in early January, before dropping 6 of their next eight. Just recently, the Pack has won two huge games on the road against then-number 9 Louisville and then later at UNC. However, they followed those wins up with a terrible loss by 16 at Boston College, the worst team in the ACC. All in all though, NC State has a much better resume than other bubble teams just because of their three huge wins, and their Strength of Schedule of 6. As of now, they are on the right side of the bubble. A win today, against a good Syracuse team, would likely put them squarely in the tournament for the 4th consecutive year.
Syracuse, meanwhile, is playing for pride. Earlier this season, they underwent a self-imposed postseason ban, brought about by violations involving ineligible players in about a 5 year period in Jim Boeheim’s career. Just yesterday, the fallout of an NCAA investigation included a 5 year probation, and the loss of 108 of Boeheim’s career victories. They cannot play in the ACC tournament, so this is the Orange’s final game of the season – no matter what.
Syracuse is led by senior Rakeem Christmas, one of the best players not only in the ACC, but in the country. He is a prime candidate for ACC Player of the Year, and is just about unstoppable underneath the basket. Christmas averages 17.6 PPG and 9 rebounds per game, and will be the key in this game. If he can play as he normally does, it will certainly create problems for NC State throughout the game.
For the Wolfpack, the key will be defense. Recently, NC State has made defense its calling card. They have held down the interior in big wins over Louisville and other teams, and have played stellar defense to stay in games against Virginia, Clemson, and North Carolina. They beat Clemson and UNC with defense, and even held their rival Tarheels to their lowest point total ever in the Dean Dome. They have buckled down, and this, along with two other players, has been the big reason for State’s recent winning ways.
These two players are Anthony Barber and Abdul-Malik Abu. Barber has become a lot more confident and assertive in the last 6 or 7 games, leading the team in scoring, and using his quickness to his advantage on fast breaks and defense. He has played smart, limiting turnovers, and has been the key to the offense. He has shot almost 50% from three, and has been looking to drive to the basket, creating opportunities for himself and others around him. Meanwhile, on the interior, Abu, a freshman, has been hitting the boards. While Lennard Freeman leads the team in rebounding, Abu has become a great rebounder recently. He has contributed to the better defensive play of the team as a whole, reaching almost 7 boards per game over the last 5 games. He has some help though, as Beejay Anya has stepped up in big games, becoming the lane protecting presence underneath. When State’s big men are at their best, Freeman and Abu are grabbing rebounds, and Anya is doing what he does best: blocking shots. He has the ability to clog the lane, and does so effectively, not allowing as much penetration when he is in the game.
And how could we forget about NC State’s other guards, Trevor Lacey and Ralston Turner? These two are the shooters for NC State. Lacey is likely the team’s best player, leading the team in scoring, and able to create shots for himself almost at will. If the Wolfpack need a big shot, they will look to him. Turner, meanwhile, is the teams number 1 three point threat. Mark Gottfried likes to run Turner (playing on Senior Day in his final home game) off screens and get him open for a catch-and-shoot. Turner has been hot lately, and opens up the offense in an incredible way when he is shooting well. If Turner and Lacey are hitting their shots at a high efficiency, it makes the Wolfpack difficult to take down.
Prediction time: I think NC State will come out passionate and ready to play. They will need to be hitting shots against Syracuse’s 2-3 zone, while also penetrating and creating opportunities every possession. Barber, Lacey, and Turner, averaging over 40 PPG for the Pack, will be responsible for this. Hopefully with a pumped-up crowd behind them, NC State can pick up a win to possibly get them in the tournament for good. Let’s not forget that last season, NC State beat Syracuse to get into the tournament as well. My prediction is a 78-71 win for the Wolfpack.