It's arguably the best sports day of the year, almost assuredly so for basketball fans. And we finally have LSU back in the mix.
It's the first day of the NCAA Tournament, a full 12 hours worth of wild finishes, game winners, and confounding upsets. I'm not sure how much of that will end up applying between North Carolina State and LSU, but the matchup is dead even and easily one of the more intriguing round of 64 games. No matter what, it's hard to see either team running away with this one. Bear down for another tight finish, a staple of LSU's this year..
There's a lot to parse through here and I'll try to keep this from turning into a huge, exhaustive piece. Just know that LSU is fully capable of winning this game if it brings even a B or B+ effort. Then again, it's March and we still don't know which Tiger team shows up on any night, though the same could practically be said of NC State.
It should be a frontcourt vs. backcourt battle in Pittsburgh. The Wolfpack run a guard-heavy approach under the direction of former Alabama coach Mark Gottfried, who is also a friend of Johnny Jones. There won't be many secrets between the teams here.
Ralston Turner (the former Tiger himself), Anthony Barber and Trevor Lacey lead a potent perimeter offense, averaging 41 points a game as a unit. All three are fully capable 3-point shooters, though Barber is by far the facilitator of the group, doling out a handful of assists on average and working a slash-and-kick attack predicated on freeing up the shooters, preferably later in the shot clock. Despite being guard heavy, the Wolfpack are just 190th in adjusted tempo. Not terribly slow but they also aren't going to outgun LSU in transition. Once the offense is set, Turner becomes the spot-up shooter while Lacey is perhaps the most effective since he's the better shooter and a bigger threat to get to the rim. These guys will be a handful, no doubt about it.
Once a shot goes up, NC State crashes the boards. Hard. And they have to, really, since they have no true center and only regularly play three guys taller than 6-foot-5, none above 6-foot-9. Kyle Washington, Abdul-Malik Abu, Beejay Anya and Caleb Martin are all underclassmen who are serviceable inside, but nothing more. They shouldn't be a threat to score much — none average more than 6 points a game. They do a nice job of freeing the guards with screens and their most valuable contribution here might be to pull Jordan Mickey and Jarell Martin away from the rim.
On the other half of the court, LSU needs to push, push, push. North Carolina State's defense isn't elite but rather merely good; consider it consistent and gritty in the half court. They protect the rim with help defense (over five blocks per game!), rebound shots with great discipline and pack things in well. Now you look at LSU, with Martin and Mickey inside and think that sounds like a bad matchup, right? I'm not so sure about that.
The Tigers love to run (13th in adjusted tempo) and I think that's the right way to beat NC State. The Wolfpack only force 10 turnovers a contest, have low steal numbers and don't close out 3-point shooters well. Remember, LSU's bugaboo has been turnovers, meaning a fast pace could lead to the points without the drawback in this game. Plus, Josh Gray has typically played his best in faster-paced games, Jalyn Patterson continues to be a reliable outside shooter and Keith Hornsby has proven to be adept as both a spot-up hoister AND a guy capable of beating guys in secondary fast breaks with a quick first step. And really, the NCAA Tournament team NC State reminds me of the most? Ole Miss, who LSU went 2-0 against this season. Those games were frantic, up-tempo affairs that played into LSU's hands since it freed the court for Martin and Mickey to work and emphasized the group's ability to beat unsettled defenses. The Tigers have zero excuse not to accelerate the action.
Then, of course, you get to the intangibles and the Wolfpack might have an advantage here. This is the fourth straight tournament trip for the program. While the roster is relatively young, almost everybody on the floor save Lacey has tournament experience under their belt. Will that be a factor? This LSU team isn't exactly one who has handled pressure or expectation well. It wouldn't surprise me to see NC State's and even, for that matter, Mark Gottfried's experience be calming factors if LSU starts hot or makes a big run. At the very least, the Tigers better not leave this one up in the air late. It's likely advantage Wolfpack in a tight one.
I don't expect LSU to get this into the 80s or NC State to bog things down too much. With the teams' differing preferences and personnel and the pressure of a postseason game, a disjointed and sometimes sloppy game might be in the cards. Consider it far more likely, though, that this game ends up closer to LSU's pace than vice versa.
There's an argument to be made that it's a successful season for the program at this point regardless. But there's an entirely winnable game on LSU's plate here. Best to take advantage of that when you have the chance. After all, we've already waited 6 years for it.